Boxing Pythagoras

Philosophy from the mind of a fighter

Regarding Biblical Slavery

In general, I attempt to avoid topics of morality in my discussions of theology and religion. This is not because I think the topic is too difficult or too complex to discuss, but rather because it seems like an exercise in futility to argue about morality when the foundational metaphysical views upon which we frame morality differ so greatly. I’ve found that such discussions very frequently either end up with one person expounding on the virtues of apples while the other extols the dangers of oranges; or else they end up regressing backward until we are discussing the foundational metaphysics instead of the moral topic.

However, today, I’m going to break that trend. I was recently directed to an article written in November of 2017 entitled Nine Points about Biblical Slavery and Skeptics’ Condemnation of the Bible. The author of the article intends the piece to be a defense of the Bible against complaints regarding the manner in which its constituent documents treat the institution of slavery. The topic is an understandably sore one for a great number of people. Opponents of religion are quite often quick to point out that the Ten Commandments, a list of some of the supposed most important tenets of morality, includes things like, “Keep the Sabbath holy” and “Honor thy father and mother,” but omits something like, “Thou shalt not own another person as your property.” In fact, the Bible never offers any clear proscription against slavery, and indeed seems to sanction the practice in a number of places. Given the incredibly strong modern moral aversion to the idea of slavery, Christian apologists have attempted to take up the task of showing that these modern detractors hold deep misunderstandings of what the Bible actually says about slavery.

The reason I’m breaking my usual avoidance of topics of morality to discuss this one is that I honestly don’t care about the metaphysical foundations of our ethics, in regards to slavery. All I care about, regarding this topic, are the answers to two, simple questions.

Is it morally acceptable to own another human being as property? Does the Bible sanction the owning of another human being as property?

Even before the author gets into any of the titular “Nine Points,” a rather curious statement is made.

The horrific treatment of slaves in the United States between 1619 and 1865 has led many Bible skeptics to question the often-mentioned practice of Biblical slavery, with the assumption that the systems of the U.S. were similar to those in Biblical times.

Even if there are skeptics who assume that “the systems of the U.S. were similar to those in Biblical times,” focusing on the American institution of slavery is a complete Red Herring. Is it morally acceptable to own another human being as property? Does the Bible sanction the owning of another human being as property?

  1. The Bible is an historical textbook, which documented actual events in our history.

If we wanted a book devoid of actual events and our sometimes ugly history, the Bible would have been a fairy tale instead of an historical text.

While I would disagree with the flat, categorical assertion that “the Bible is an historical textbook,” I will agree that there are certainly texts within that anthology which are intended to convey historical events. The article is absolutely correct to note that a discussion of history which glosses over the negative parts would be far less trustworthy. However, it is quite curious, indeed, that the article seems to be admitting that the discussion of slavery in the Bible amounts to a discussion of “our sometimes ugly history.”

Is it morally acceptable to own another human being as property? Does the Bible sanction the owning of another human being as property?

  1. Slavery was an integral part of the functioning of societies in Biblical times.
  • “As much as two thirds of the Roman empire were slaves (before the first century it was as high as 90%). By the first century AD an increasingly large number of slaves were being freed—so much so that Caesar had to write up laws that governed the procedure!” (Wallace, 2004).
  • Ancient people would have had a difficult, if not impossible time of building societies without the manpower of slaves.

It seems that our Christian Apologist feels the need to be an apologist for slavery in order to defend the faith. Yes, a great deal of ancient society was built upon the backs of slaves. One could certainly build a strong argument that the cultural progression we now know from history would have been severely retarded without the institution of slavery. Is it the author’s intention to imply that this fact therefore implies that slavery is ethically vindicated?

Is it morally acceptable to own another human being as property? Does the Bible sanction the owning of another human being as property?

  1. Slaves were captives of war, children of slaves, abandoned children, criminals, or debt-servants. Slavery was not due to skin color.

Does the author intend to imply that only slavery based on race is immoral? Are we to believe that enslaving captives of war, children of slaves, abandoned children, criminals, and debt-servants is completely ethical behavior? Is it the author’s belief that slavery is justifiable, but racism is abhorrent?

Is it morally acceptable to own another human being as property? Does the Bible sanction the owning of another human being as property?

4. Three provisions for slaves in Israel differ markedly from the rights afforded them in the New World (see above source for additional details).

  • Anti-harm laws: When an employer accidentally harmed a slave, the slave was to go free, as per Exodus 21: 26-27. Further, in the same passage, if an owner put a slave to death, the owner was to be put to death. In the New World, slaves did not have such rights and owners were not punished for harming slaves.
  • Anti-kidnapping laws: Kidnapping was condemned and punishable by death, as per Exodus 21:16 and Deuteronomy 24:7. In the New World, slavery began by the kidnapping of people in Africa.
  • Anti-return laws: Deuteronomy 23: 15-16 states that Israel is to offer a safe haven to harbor runaway slaves, which strongly contrasts the “Fugitive Slave Law” of the United States.

The article’s treatment of what it classifies as “anti-harm laws” is extremely misleading. The passage in question doesn’t make reference to “an employer” or “accidental harm,” at all. Rather, the passage explicitly refers to a slaveowner deliberately striking a slave in such a way as to cause that slave to lose an eye or a tooth. In such an instance, Exodus calls for the slave to be freed. However, there is absolutely no proscription against the slaveowner injuring the slave in other ways, whether intentionally or accidentally. Further, the article completely mischaracterizes the punishment for a slaveowner killing a slave. I’ll let the actual passage speak for itself, here:

When a slaveowner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property.–Exodus 21:20-21 (NRSV)

The discussion of anti-kidnapping laws are completely beside the point. Whether a person enters into slavery by having been kidnapped or by some other means, that person still becomes the property of the slaveowner.

Yes, Deuteronomy 23:15-16 states that slaves who escape foreign countries are to be allowed to reside in Hebrew lands and are not to be oppressed. This does not, in any way, require Hebrew slaves to be freed, nor prevent the Hebrews from acquiring new slaves, nor discourage the Hebrew institution of slavery in any way.

On the contrary, Exodus and Deuteronomy explicitly sanction the purchase and acquisition of slaves. Exodus 21:2-6 and Deuteronomy 15:12-18 set down the rules by which slaves are to be acquired if they are Hebrews. Leviticus 25:44-46 give provisions for acquiring foreign slaves, who can be willed to one’s children as inherited property and are slaves for their whole lives.

Is it morally acceptable to own another human being as property? Does the Bible sanction the owning of another human being as property?

5. We should consider the New Covenant of the New Testament when discussing Biblical Slavery.

The article’s implications, here, seem to be that the New Covenant causes God’s moral prescriptions to change. I don’t have any problem with this, in and of itself, but it does seem to contradict the usual Christian position that morality is objective and immutable.

Is it morally acceptable to own another human being as property? Does the Bible sanction the owning of another human being as property?

6. The New Testament treatment of slaves demonstrated kindness

  • In the book of Philemon (15-21), we see that Philemon owned a slave – and the fine treatment Paul afforded the slave
  • “Some critics claim, “Jesus never said anything about the wrongness of slavery.” Not so. He explicitly opposed every form of oppression in His mission ‘to proclaim release to the captives … to set free those who are oppressed’ (Luke 4:18 NASB1; cp. Isaiah 61:1)” (Copans, 2011).
  • “The New Testament presupposes a fundamental equality because all humans are created in God’s image (James 3:9). Yet, an even deeper unity in Christ transcends human boundaries and social structures: no Jew or Greek, slave or free, no male and female, as all believers are all ‘one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28; cp. Colossians 3:11)” (Copans, 2011).
  • Unlike Christians, Romans believed slaves were a “living tool, just as a tool is an inanimate slave. Therefore, there can be no friendship with a slave” (Nichomachean ethics 8.11).
  • Christians freed slaves with estimates of at least 15,600 between 95 and 400 A.D. (Lecky, 1927).
  • With the emergence of Christianity came the belief that Christians wouldn’t enslave other Christians (Rutgers, n.d.).

The book of Philemon is quite an interesting one, as regards slavery. It is a very short letter written by Paul to a fellow Christian named Philemon. In the epistle, Paul implies that Philemon owned a slave named Onesimus and that the slaveowner had given Onesimus in service to Paul since Philemon had no use for the man. Paul is returning the slave, Onesimus, to his owner, Philemon, accompanied by this letter. Paul tells Philemon that he has become very close to Onesimus– so close, in fact, that he has adopted Onesimus as his son. He implores– and even threatens to command– Philemon to treat Onesimus no longer as a slave, but rather as a brother.

While this book is often cited by apologists as evidence that slavery was opposed in the New Testament, the simple fact of the matter is that it does not evidence this, at all. Paul does not ask Philemon to free all of his slaves; he only cares about a single, particular slave. He does not implore that Onesimus be freed because slavery is immoral; he asks that Onesimus is freed because he has become extremely close with the man. Paul is asking Philemon to free Onesimus, but he sends the slave back to his owner still a slave and with no guarantee that Philemon will actually grant freedom.

The article then moves to referencing Luke 4:18 as an example of Jesus condemning slavery. However, a simple reading of the passage in its actual context disconfirms that eisegetical interpretation of the text. Neither Jesus nor the passage from Isaiah which Jesus quotes are discussing the notions of slavery or oppression or captivity as a whole. They are both referring directly to Israel and God’s chosen people. The Lukan passage is intended to show that Jesus is claiming the mantle of the Messiah, the anointed one of God sent to redeem God’s people. It is certainly not a flat proscription against slavery.

On the contrary, Jesus never offers a single objection to slavery, as an institution, but rather discusses it as a perfectly normal and acceptable occurrence. A number of Jesus’ parables make reference to slaves and their masters, and never in any way which might imply that the practice of slavery is immoral. According to the author of Luke, Jesus proclaims, “Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes” (12:37, NRSV). Other New Testament authors are even more forceful in their acceptance of slavery. Both Ephesians 6:5 and 1 Peter 2:18 exhort slaves to obey their masters, and explicitly denote that they should be glad to do so because it is the morally correct thing to do.

While some New Testament authors most certainly did claim that slaves and free-men were spiritual equals, this does not imply that they are societal equals or that the practice of owning another human being as property is, in any way, immoral.

The article’s remaining claims on this subject– that Roman law viewed slaves in a worse light than Christians, that Christians freed 15,600 slaves over the course of three centuries, and that Christians adopted a policy of not enslaving other Christians– are all Red Herrings. None of these things are related in the Bible, itself; and even if they were, none of these things are a condemnation of the practice of slavery, as a whole.

Is it morally acceptable to own another human being as property? Does the Bible sanction the owning of another human being as property?

7. Judging God’s actions to permit slavery or to terminate a particular society is faulty when we lack God’s omniscience and presence in the past, present, or future.

God’s omniscience and omnipresence are entirely irrelevant.

Is it morally acceptable to own another human being as property? Does the Bible sanction the owning of another human being as property?

8. Judging the practice of slavery in the Old Testament or New Testament requires assessing it against an objective moral standard, not a relative (society-specific, fluctuating) standard.

Judgment does not require an objective moral standard. Judgment can most certainly be passed on a relative moral standard, and is done so all the time. However, that is entirely irrelevant. Right now, I’m not attempting to judge the practice of slavery, at all. I’m asking two very simple questions regarding one’s view on the topic.

Is it morally acceptable to own another human being as property? Does the Bible sanction the owning of another human being as property?

9. Before judging societies for what they were during Biblical times, which consisted of high slavery populations and harsh conditions, consider the true message of the Bible and its entire purpose, which was to pave the path for Jesus.

Is the implication, here, that slavery is perfectly ethically sound so long as it is a tool for paving the path to Jesus? Are we to believe that the practice of slavery was absolutely necessary for the message of the gospel and salvation? Is the gospel necessarily predicated on the practice of slavery?

Is it morally acceptable to own another human being as property? Does the Bible sanction the owning of another human being as property?

 

“…for the slave is the owner’s property.” –Exodus 21:21

When skeptics point to the practice of slavery in the Bible as an example of something disagreeable, I will most certainly agree with the author that these skeptics are often doing so based on a very modern sense of morality which finds the very notion of slavery to be completely abhorrent, and which has been fostered by the still-fairly-recent history of horrific slavery in modern nations like the United States of America.

So what?

If one’s goal is to argue that these detractors are mistaken to condemn the Bible for its sanctioning of the practice of slavery, then there are only two real ways in which this can be done. Either one must argue that there are situations in which slavery is a perfectly ethical practice or else one must argue that the Bible does not establish laws and processes by which slavery could be instituted.

Is it morally acceptable to own another human being as property? Does the Bible sanction the owning of another human being as property?

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