On the Issue of Slavery

slavesinegypt“And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink.”  Numbers 20:5 

In Numbers chapter 20 the Hebrews are complaining to Moses that he has brought them out of Egypt into the wilderness.  You see, even though they had been slaves in Egypt, the Hebrews were used to having certain things.  There they had lived in houses, not tents.  There was plenty of water to drink via the Nile River.  And one thing they brought up a lot was the food.  The Hebrews missed the pomegranates of all things.  Egypt had those.  The wilderness only had manna from heaven, practically fed to them by God.  The point is, they missed the land of Egypt were they had been slaves, because from their point of view life had been better back there than out here with Moses.  They missed their home, their food, and their stuff.  Which brings me to my point about slavery.

One of the common attacks against Christianity is the belief in slavery.  It is right there in the Bible; slaves honor your masters.  Five times actually; Ephesians, twice in Colossians, Timothy and Titus.  One could make the point that these passages also instruct masters on how slaves are to be treated, the verses not many southern preachers were reading in the 1800’s.  My main contention, however, is that our concept of slavery is NOT what was going on in the Bible.  Biblical slavery was not based on race.  In the Bible, slaves were not even exactly property.  Often times it was more like serving a contract.  Slaves lived at home with their families, were not beaten within an inch of their lives, and even managed the master’s estate in some cases.  Yes there is slavery in the Bible.  But not the chattel slavery of the American deep south, circa 1860. 

What Southerners did to slavery was unheard of anywhere else in the world, or at other times in history for that matter.  Southern slaves were often barely kept alive, nearly froze (or did freeze) in the winter, and eventually were breed to create the next generation of slaves.  Families were separated, slaves sold at auction after being inspected like horses, and any child born to a slave was automatically the property of the slave owner.  This is not, is not, is not what was going on in any of the Bible stories with slaves.  In Numbers 20 and other places during the Exodus story the Hebrews wanted to return to their slavery in Egypt.  They missed it.  Joseph was a “slave” belonging to Potipher, but he was lord of his whole house and all of his finances.  Some Bible translations even use the term bond-servant instead of slave in the New Testament.  Perhaps this better creates the right image in our minds.  The relationship is a bond, or contractual agreement, between two parties. 

Watch the movie “Ben Hur.”  Yes it’s 4 1/2 hours long, but there’s a lot of gospel in that fiction.  Ben Hur has a slave that he hasn’t seen in like 3 months.  He’s been away trading with Africans and Asians on the caravan routes.  He has spent Ben Hur’s money doing Ben Hur’s business, and even comes back with presents for the family he bought with his own money.  There were instructions in the Old Testament law about what to do with a slave that had served his time of bond, but wished to stay.  Probably at no time in the Old South did any slave want to stay and keep slaving away for the master.  Slavery in the Bible is not the slavery of the American Civil War era.  That evil is just so ingrained in our consciousness still today, that we cringe at any mention of slavery in the Bible or elsewhere. 

Class dismissed; study, there might be a quiz.

5 thoughts on “On the Issue of Slavery

  1. Before anyone comments, remember that I am a historian first, theologian second. I have a BS in history and political science. You can disagree with my conclusions, but if you argue my history is wrong I have the resources to eat you alive. You may procede.

  2. One of my NT professors in seminary told us some interesting facts about slavery in the first century Roman Empire. I had always believed that Roman slavery was totally different than Jewish slavery was, in that a slave to a Jewish family was treated as a human and in most cases had to be freed after no more than 7 years, but that a Roman slave was treated as property. While it is true that Roman slaves were legally property and could be put to death at their master’s whim (crucifixion was a death for slaves after all) it wasn’t the same as American slavery was. He made these three points about slavery in the Roman Empire.

    1. All slaves knew how to read. In most of the slave states in America it was illegal to teach a slave to read.

    2. While slavery was forced labor, slaves were paid.

    3. Most slaves were eventually freed. When Paul talks about “freedmen” in his epistles this is what he has in mind.

    Having said that, Paul does tell slaves to gain their freedom if possible. And of course, everyone should read the book of Philemon.

  3. Clark,

    I look forward to being eaten alive (I assume you know the Bible well and it allows that too! 🙂 ). Qualifications aren’t everything, Clark. Even many holocaust deniers are well qualified historically, but it doesn’t make them right.

    Biblical slavery was not based on race. In the Bible, slaves were not even exactly property.

    Looks like it was based on religion (which in Old Testament times meant gentiles not Jews). Try Leviticus 25:44-46 or on beating: Luke 12:46-47

    The following article gives more info on Biblical Slavery gives another perspective.

  4. From Lev. 25: 44 As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. 45 You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. 46 You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly.

    This is the command for the Hebrews: they can purchase, own, and bequeath slaves, as long as it is not their Jewish brothers and sisters. Jews were also not allowed to charge interest on borrowed money; that is, money borrowed from other Jews.

    From Luke 12: 41 Peter said, “Lord, are you telling this parable for us or for all?” 42 And the Lord said, “Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? 43 Blessed is that servant [9] whom his master will find so doing when he comes. 44 Truly, I say to you, he will set him over all his possessions. 45 But if that servant says to himself, ‘My master is delayed in coming,’ and begins to beat the male and female servants, and to eat and drink and get drunk, 46 the master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and put him with the unfaithful. 47 And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating. 48 But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.

    This is not about slaves and their masters; this is Jesus prophecying his return and the final judgement. In the first place, it’s about a servant, not a slave. More importantly, it’s not written about servants or slaves. It’s about we the servants of God being found working for the master when he returns. The “beating” is burning in hell, not whips from a lash.

    Good Bible verses Eshu. I’m glad we agree on stuff.

  5. Pingback: The Bible, Uses and Misuses « The Master’s Table

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