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Sunday, September 9, 2012

Does the Bible Really Condone Slavery?

I realize most of my Readers are American so I feel the need to write this brief “disclaimer” before launching into full swing. I am writing from a cultural background and history that is completely void of slavery. New Zealand’s history, as far as I know, has never had any part in the slave trade, so if I seem cavalier in my attitude towards this topic please try to understand that I do not have the psychological or emotional paradigm that someone growing up in a country with such a history might hold. This article is in no way about the European/American treatment of African slaves, nor is it a justification for the slave trade, I am merely trying to point out that Atheist Antagonists who claim that the Bible condones slavery are wrong to think so.



Some time ago I was doing some late evening shopping at my local grocery store and found myself standing at the magazine rack. Seeing as it was one of those rare moments when I didn’t have the kids with me I began to peruse the section with eclectic curiosity until I picked up one of those Conspiracy Theory magazines…

I don’t remember anything else about the magazine, thankfully, but there was one article which jumped out of the page and slapped me in the face with a dueling glove.

It was an article written by some sorry atheist about the horrible Bible we Christians love so much and had the usual arguments about God endorsing genocide in the Old Testament and that the Bible condones slavery.

It really annoyed me, as such things usually do, that once again here was an atheist who had “read” the Bible clearly looking to prove the bias’ she already had for not wanting to accept its authority. But she hadn’t “studied” the Bible. It’s one thing to say, “God told the Israelites to commit genocide,” but it’s an entirely different thing to ask the question, “Why did God tell them to do that?” A question she clearly didn’t ask or even want an answer for. When we ask such questions we might find we learn something about God that makes him just a bit more real, a bit more holy and even a bit more terrifying than he was before we asked.

Little did I know her “arguments”, or rather pot shots, lingered in my subconscious and unable to repress at least one of them I found myself engaging in a riveting dialogue with myself today over the issue of whether or not the Bible actually does endorse slavery. (Sorry to the people wanting an answer to the genocide question, it’s still in a cupboard in my brain on a shelf somewhere).

I contend that even though the Bible clearly tolerates slavery (note I use the word “tolerate” and not “condone”) I believe that a closer study of slavery in the Bible will reveal some awesome truths about God and our relationship to him.

First let’s point out one very important thing. The Bible contains extraordinary historical accounts of people’s lives through which we ultimately learn something about God’s plan of redemption for the Human Race when looked at in context. Sometimes the people in these stories make horrible mistakes and the Bible does not make any attempt to cover them up or be PC about it while at the same time not actually condoning the actions of the individuals in the story.

One example is Lot being seduced by his daughters while drunk. The account in Genesis is just that – an account, not a suggestion of how a Father should be treated by his children. I could go on to show how the consequences of sin are far reaching and we see many generations later how the descendants of Job’s offspring caused various problems for the Israelites but we’d be here for a while, so I’ll spare you.

Another example of the Bible’s “telling it as it happened” approach to storytelling is the harrowing account of Jephthah who swore to sacrifice the first living thing that came out his door if he was victorious in battle. This led to the sacrifice of his beloved daughter because of his foolish vow. Again, this is not the Bible condoning Human Sacrifice, it’s just retelling the sad account of a man who made a foolish promise he wished he couldn’t keep. We can learn from such mistakes.

In the same way, let’s try to ignore any accounts of slavery before the Law was given, such as references to Abraham having slaves. Abraham did not have the law so he really did not know any better. The fact that he had slaves is just a normal consequence of his living in the time and culture that he found himself in. He was a wealthy man who had no children (at the time) and it would have been perfectly culturally acceptable, and even necessary, for him to own slaves. This is not condoning slavery, it’s just simply pointing out a fact of ancient life.

Later in the Bible we read in Romans that “In all things God works for the good of those who love him.” So the good news is that despite Job’s incest, Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter and the fact that Abraham didn’t yet have the law – we know that ultimately God can sovereignly work with our mistakes to bring about a better conclusion.

And that’s what we see throughout the Bible, because in the end, through faith in Jesus Christ – we get to live forever. So that’s a pretty good outcome if you ask me.

But let’s deal specifically with the laws pertaining to slave ownership in Israel. But we can’t do that without first considering a few things about Israel.

The purpose of God’s Chosen People Israel was that through them would ultimately come the Messiah. Also through Israel would come the Law and the prophets, which would be the credentials of the Messiah, as Jesus said in the beginning of his ministry, “I have not come to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill them.” And at the end of his ministry in the Garden of Gethsemane he said, “But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.” We’ll come back to this point later.

There was however a third purpose to the Jewish nation, and that was to be a light, or example to the surrounding nations (Isaiah 49:6 paints a good picture of this). When they were keeping God’s law and reaping the benefits of God’s promises the Gentile nations would have front row seats to see how great a nation that served the Lord could be. On the other hand, when the Israelites did not serve the LORD the Gentile nations could see God’s just punishment against them.

At the time the Law was written slavery would have been vastly common in the Ancient World. I believe, that because Israel were the keepers of God’s law and therefore an example to the heathen nations surrounding them that God gave them regulations of how to Humanely treat their slaves. Just do a google search on how Slaves in the ancient world were treated and then compare that treatment to how the Bible demands them to be treated and then ask the question, “Does the Bible condone slavery?”

Here are some examples:

Exodus 21 – the Israelites were not to own fellow Israelite slaves for more than six years. In the seventh year they were to go free. Correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t slavery usually for life? Not in Ancient Israel, in fact if a slave decided he liked his master enough he could choose to stay with him and receive a pretty extreme ear piercing to show for it.

In the same chapter if a man beat his slave to death, the slave would be avenged. I think because to do so would have been considered murder and not merely the disposal of one’s property.

And just when you think the Bible condones the beating of slaves it says that if a slave lost an eye or even a tooth as a result of a beating that slave was to be set free.

Of course there are some things in there that may not agree with our PC worldview, but newsflash – the ancient world was far from PC! Better to be the slave of an Ancient Israelite who takes God’s Word seriously than some of the other Ancient options there were for Masters!

Let’s look at it a different way. A common sense argument for why the Bible may have tolerated slave ownership could be as follows:

As a projectionist and therefore a film buff, I have seen many films set in the days of the slave trade and I have found myself thinking this one thing – “Man, if I lived in those days and was filthy rich, I would have bought these slaves and set them free.” Then I have thought, “…but freedom might be the same as a death sentence in some time periods, I might have set them free into a life of never being able to get a job or have a family because of the stigma society has placed on them…” so I have found myself revising my strategy to, “Man, if I lived in those days, and was filthy rich, I would buy as many slaves as I could and treat them really well, with the dignity that they deserve, and give them the option to be free or stay in the safety of my home.” And that clinches it for me really.

If the shoe was on the other foot however, and I was the slave in those days I would hope that my master would be a God fearing man who believes that I am made in God’s image, at least then I would know that my treatment would be humane.

So slave ownership in Ancient Israel was in a way a revolutionary approach to the concept of slavery.

But now for Israel’s second purpose - the coming Messiah.

I have found great joy in discovering that the Old Testament works like Christ’s passport into our hearts. What I mean is the Law and the Prophets completely authenticated him as Messiah. It’s like the World was some sort of airport and when the religious leaders of the day asked to see his papers all he had to do was point to the passages which foreshadowed his coming.

One of the greatest things about being a student of the Bible is the awesome excitement you feel when a passage or concept jumps out of the Old Testament and you can totally see Jesus’ fingerprint on it. This is something that Atheist Antagonists like the lady who wrote the article I mentioned above, cannot possibly understand.

The Old Testament passages on slavery are no exception. They too reveal something about Jesus. This is what I think that something is.

In Romans 6 we read that we who were once slaves of sin have been set free from sin and have become slaves of righteousness.

In some translations of Acts 20:28 we read that Jesus purchased the Church with his own blood.

What I’m getting at is that the writers of the New Testament make good use of Slave imagery to clearly illustrate the Human condition – that we are slaves to sin, and if we are slaves then whose slaves are we?

Obviously the Devil’s…

But Jesus purchased us with his blood so we would become his slaves, or rather “slaves to righteousness”. So as I said before, in the ancient world whose slave would you rather be, a cruel pagan’s or a God fearing Jew’s? This translates well into the spiritual aspect of our fallen state, whose slave would you rather be? Christ’s or Satan’s?

I believe God tolerated Slave ownership in the Old Testament because it served as a necessary picture of what we as Human Beings are in our true nature – Slaves who need to be set free.

Going back to Exodus 21 we see that the slave would be set free after 6 years. It’s interesting that this corresponds to an early Church belief that interpreted 2 Peter 3:8 completely differently than we modern Christians do – that a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. In the Epistle of Barnabas (non scriptural, I know, but it serves to show what was commonly taught back then) we see that early Christian’s saw the six days of creation as the 6000 years of Human history before the return of Christ. The Sabbath day therefore was indicative of Christ’s millennial reign upon the earth. So isn’t it interesting that when the Hebrew slave was set free it was on the seventh year? Does this foreshadow the demise of the current slave-master, the Devil, when after his imprisonment the slaves will be set free to live under Christ’s rule? I’m not stating that emphatically, it’s just a thought I had.

Another interesting observation is that if a slave claimed that he loved his master, his wife and his children (who were also owned by the master) and decided to stay with his master beyond the six years of service then his ear would be bore through with an awl (whatever that is) against the Master’s doorpost, after which he would forever belong to his master.

I think it’s fascinating that throughout Christ’s teaching he repeats the phrase, “If anyone has an ear to hear, let him hear.” Again in Romans 10:17 we read that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” So If we reject the message of Christ then we are choosing to have our ears nailed to the doorpost of our old master and thus remain the Devil’s property – just like the Old Testament slave who chooses to stay with his master. The statement, “if a slave claims that he loves his master, his wife and his children,” reminds me of Jesus’ parable about the seed sown among the thorns being the man who hears the word but the cares of this world, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word…

I may be way off base and horrifically theologically challenged in my thinking. I’m mainly just speculating with some of the above statements but I would love to know if anyone has any more thoughts on this issue.

If anything, I hope I have shown that the issue of slavery in the Bible is not a simple one and can’t really be used to justify rejection of the Bible as the Good Book. It deserves careful study to understand why God allowed such a concept as slavery.

I will note here that slavery is in the New Testament but it seems obvious to me that as slaves were converting to Christianity they were encouraged to stay with their masters because in so doing they would be able to win their masters over to a saving knowledge of Christ. As for masters, they were encouraged to treat their Christian slaves as brothers...

So no, I do not think the Bible condoned slavery but God knew that men, being men will eventually enslave his fellow man. So God made laws to protect slaves from man’s cruelty.

In closing I would like to point out that Atheist Antagonists love to use Scriptures like this to make the ignorant think that the Bible is somehow evil. I guess to anyone with a completely dishonest Politically Correct world view the Bible could be classed as evil. But the Bible was not written by people brainwashed with Political Correctness but rather by individuals who were enlightened with the truth!

Atheist antagonists want to scare the Biblically uneducated into thinking that belief in the Bible will eventuate into justification for slave ownership (or genocide) when they use such arguments, but they are being dishonest and completely ignoring the fact that it is because of the Bible that we do not have slavery today. Abraham Lincoln declaring that man was created equal with inalienable rights – inspired by the Bible. Then there was William Wilberforce abolishing the Slave Trade in England - thanks to his belief in the Bible. And let us not forget John Newton the notorious slave trader who converted to Christianity and turned his back on his former vocation, eventually to write the song Amazing Grace – thanks to the Bible. So let’s not lose perspective here.

Atheist Antagonists are being dishonest when they use the Bible against the Bible. They have “read” it only to serve their own agenda, but they have not “studied” it in their quest for truth, because they don’t care about truth, they only care about justifying their lack of belief in God and their hatred for people like us who do.

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