Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Slavery in the Bible

Wow! What an interesting study this has been! I've been all over the Bible in this one, and I'm about to do a very non-scholarly thing. I'm going to give you a smattering of all of it with no references. I can hear the boos- stop it! I've looked it all up, but between caring for children and such, have misplaced my various scribblings and jottings. If you have time to fill in the #s, go for it. Of course, this is not going to be comprehensive, but here we go.

So. Why talk about slavery in the Bible? Well, it's February- Black History month- the time when Christian radio (my intellectual stimulation when Nathan's not available ;o) is flooded with chatter about slavery, modern and ancient. And I keep hearing about the evils of slavery. How we're all 'endowed by our Creator with inalienable rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' Which by the way, is a direct reference to the Stoics, not the Scripture. What is your answer to this question: is slavery morally wrong? is it evil to own another human being?

What is slavery, anyhow? Is it not a complete lack of say-so over one's own destiny and responsibilities? (By the way, aren't the masses of the world born into societies where they live under varying degrees of this?)

So I'm a bit confused. What about Job, whom the Bible calls PERFECT; he had manservants and maidservants. And Abraham? And Rachel and Leah had handmaids. According to my father-in-law, there's not a different word for the 'slave' that Joseph was and the 'servants' of these men. Pharaoh gave Abraham servants. Hagar ran away; God told her to return and submit herself to Sarah's authority. The law is full of regulations for slaves and masters. The Gibeonites became servants to the Israelites after they tricked God's people into not annihilating them. Philemon was a slave-owner (think Onesimus) and the church at Colossians had more than one in the congregation. Where are the "Slavery is a moral evil. Release all your slaves!" statements?

Non-Christians love to point to the lack of condemnation of slavery in Scripture as a strike against the morality of God. What did God really think about slavery as a social system? According to scripture, slavery was instituted as a penal system. Think slavery instead of debtor's prisons. And as they interacted with and were attacked by other cultures, think slavery instead of annihilation. There doesn't seem to be any scriptural evidence of owning another person being wrong.

There WERE laws against kidnapping other people. It could even be punishable by death. That is what makes the black slavery of early America immoral. They were stolen people groups. They did not attack us, nor were they indebted to us. Also, the American slave movement was based on the superiority of the white race to those of color (which goes completely counter to the Genesis account of one set of parents for all races).

God told masters in Colossians to be fair and just to their slaves, keeping in mind that they, too, had a Master in heaven. And when the Israelites broke their pledge of safety with the Gibeonites, they suffered a plague because of it. God obviously cared about the conditions of slaves.

Conclusion: It seems to me that, biblically, slavery as a social status is not inherently immoral. It was an alternative to prisons and death sentences. How one acquired a slave and how one treated a slave seems to be the areas of judgment. God blessed Joseph in his slavery (even though he was taken immorally), and Joseph submitted until asked to commit sin. Thoughts?


estesp said...

Interesting thoughts--my reading for today was Exodus 21-23 which includes an exposition of God's laws and order for the people as they start a "new life" as a nation outside of Egypt. The initial paragraphs cover laws about owning slaves, and as a reference to help bolster some of your thinking, gives the same feel of slavery in some cases being an alternative to other forms of menial or financial punishment. The entire section also gives a clear indication of God's care for people and his love for those who have no power in a worldly sense (the orphan, widow, the poor), combined with a righteous anger against those who would dare take advantage of them (which we can find reference to all over the OT). So, it's clear to me that God would "hate" some of the forms of slavery we've seen in past generations *because* it includes bigotry, inhumane treatment, taking advantage of the inability of those "under" them to have any legal recourse, etc...but not necessarily because it was slavery? Difficult subject and one worth thinking about.

Charity said...

Dear estesp,
Thanks for your thoughtful response. Could you please leave your name? I couldn't tell who you were.

estesp said...

Sorry.. I thought I was known internationally as "estesp" :) Phil Estes.. but not to be confused with my father of the same name. I'm a high school classmate of your brother-in-law, who also goes by Phil, just to keep things confusing! I'm a reader of your blog through the nice "HS Blogs" aggregator Kevin Survance keeps humming after all these years.

Mary said...

As the mother of three black children who are the direct descendents of slaves, this is a subject of special interest to me. We've just finished up a three month study of the civil war era and it's brought up many emotions in the two older boys. We heard an excellent explanation of American slavery on a recent visit to Magnolia Plantation near Charleston, SC on a recent trip. Our guide explained the difference between American slavery and slavery that had been practiced up to that time in the world. We've also read Frederick Douglas' autobiography which should be required reading for anyone interested in the issue.

Thank you for your study and for being willing to deal with a difficult part of history.