Monday, May 14, 2012

SLAVERY---Our history and the Bible don't match


When it comes to Bible apologetics, few words make grown men tremble like the "S" word, you know...SLAVERY. A quick shift into the realm of the uncomfortable surely follows this term. Things get awkward, and we search quickly for a backdoor.

But this discussion must not be avoided, indeed, it would do all of us a great deal of good to take an objective look into it, minus the emotional and presuppositional baggage.

Skeptics of all shapes and sizes love to threaten "Bible-thumpers" with what (they think) will surely be an embarrassing investigation, an "easy" way to score big negative points in the relentless quest to discredit theism in general, and Christianity specifically. Usually it will follow the form of something within the ballpark of:

"You know, of course, that your Bible promotes slavery!"

They imagine, of course, all sorts of things that do not exist, claiming that the Bible has statements tantamount to COMMANDING slavery. Most of them have never even read the relevant portions, confident that their good-and-objective friends over at or The Skeptics Annotated Bible have done their "thorough" homework in their own scathing attacks.


Unfortunately, history and language have made these baseless challenges all too easy. The horrific misdeeds and evil of many on either side of the Atlantic slave trade of the 16th through the 19th centuries have created the perfect storm to foment this controversy. But it is not just the actual historical events of the slave-trade-triangle, but also the equivocation of terms, such as servant, or slave, and the linking of these terms with ungodly, barbaric actions that has led to this modern full-frontal assault on the scriptures.


"Scholars do not agree on a definition of "slavery." The term has been used at various times for a wide range of institutions, including plantation slavery, forced labor, the drudgery of factories and sweatshops, child labor, semivoluntary prostitution, bride-price marriage, child adoption for payment, and paid-for surrogate motherhood. Somewhere within this range, the literal meaning of "slavery" shifts into metaphorical meaning, but it is not entirely clear at what point. A similar problem arises when we look at other cultures. The reason is that the term "Slavery" is evocative rather than analytical, calling to mind a loose bundle of diagnostic features. These features are mainly derived from the most recent direct Western experience with slavery, that of the southern United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America. The present Western image of slavery has been haphazardly constructed out of the representations of that experience in nineteenth-century abolitionist literature, and later novels, textbooks, and films...From a global cross-cultural and historical perspective, however, New World slavery was a unique conjunction of features...In brief, most varieties of slavery did not exhibit the three elements that were dominant in the New World: slaves as property and commodities; their use exclusively as labor; and their lack of freedom..."
(Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology (4 vols), David Levinson and Melvin Ember (eds), HenryHolt:1996)

To have the proper foundation to accurately discuss this highly-charged issue, there are at least three things to consider:

(1) (Traditional) Forms of Slavery down through history
(2) Biblical passages on Slavery
(3) "American" Slavery (16th-19th century)

There have been many types of slavery over the millennia, but it is more than unfortunate that all of the various modes are lumped together loosely and simply called SLAVERY. Basically, there are 3 types that fall under this catch-all term:

(1) Spoils-of-war Slavery
(2) Voluntary Servanthood (Indentured Servant)
(3) Kidnap-Slavery

The first,  Spoils-of-war Slavery, is easy enough to grasp. Nations, kingdoms, cities even, go to war, and, well, to the victor goes the spoils. Goods, property, and even people are taken back by the victors. Some of these people meet horrible futures, such as forced slavery in mass construction or mining projects, others end up in the homes of wealthy and powerful people. This latter group also experienced a wide range of conditions, some enduring abject poverty, and some eventually elevated nearly to family-status. Eventually, this led to multi-generational slavery as well.

The second category, Voluntary/Indentured Servanthood, is little understood, and this is exceedingly unfortunate, as related to the issue of Biblical "slavery." Just as is common today with our quick credit and wallets full of plastic money, people historically have found it all too easy to get into serious debt. In the distant past, they did not have the escape hatch of "filing for bankruptcy."

So, what did they do? Many times they would voluntarily present themselves to a wealthy(ier) landowner in exchange for a contracted amount of money, paid UP-FRONT. They would use this money to pay off their debt, and then work for a specified period of time in exchange for that money. Often, if the money was owed to one individual in particular, the person could offer to trade their services for the canceling of the debt.

Similar to this arrangement is the Indentured Servant model. Typically, in exchange for perhaps travel fare and room and board, a person would agree to work for another for a fixed period of time. At the end of the allotted time, the person was liberated from their debt, and often had gained a new set of skills or trade. Many of these would stay "on" with their "master" and continue working with them.

In today's socio-economic model, it is similar, but the timing is different. Nowadays, we first WORK, then, at a specified time, receive MONEY in exchange. We use different terms in modern times, and we usually don't live AT our employer's address, but it is essentially the same: trade work for money. This arrangement, though a far cry from the abuses experienced in this hemisphere over the past 400 years, is also called "slavery," though few would consider it as such.

The final category, Kidnap-Slavery is old, and very evil. It involves, pure and simple, human trafficking. Slave traders would ensnare, kidnap individuals, even entire communities, and then sell or trade people. This type of cruel activity has occurred all over the globe, in every major civilization.

This is what tragically happened in Africa, first under the Muslim invaders since the 9th century, and then, very heavily in the 16th to the 19th century in the infamous Atlantic Slave Triangle. This barbarism decimated entire regions. 

Here is an excerpt by the Manikongo, Nzinga Mbemba Afonso, to the King João III of Portugal:

"Each day the traders are kidnapping our people—children of this country, sons of our nobles and vassals, even people of our own family. This corruption and depravity are so widespread that our land is entirely depopulated...It is our wish that this Kingdom not be a place for the trade or transport of slaves."

This African holocaust, leading to the severe abuses in the Western Hemisphere (incidentally, there were more slaves shipped to Central and South American plantations) is about the only frame of reference that people have when the word SLAVE or SLAVERY is used in modern dialogue.  They are not even aware of the wide practice of Voluntary Servanthood (cash up-front work contract) that also existed for many thousands of years. 

To further illustrate the differences between our Western view of "slavery" and the daily reality of a near-caste system in the Near/Middle East, a short quote will suffice:

"Freedom in the ancient Near East was a relative, not an absolute state, as the ambiguity of the term for "slave" in all the region's languages illustrates. "Slave" could be used to refer to a subordinate in the social ladder. Thus the subjects of a king were called his "slaves," even though they were free citizens. The king himself, if a vassal, was the "slave" of his emperor; kings, emperors, and commoners alike were "slaves" of the gods. Even a social inferior, when addressing a social superior, referred to himself out of politeness as "your slave." There were, moreover, a plethora of servile conditions that were not regarded as slavery, such as son, daughter, wife, serf, or human pledge."
(A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law (2 vols). Raymond Westbrook (ed). Brill:2003.)


The detractors of Christianity count on two things, and they forget one very important thing. They count on the fact that of: (1) the average person's ignorance of different types of servants/slavery (2) the Bible's actual passages about servants/slavery. They also forget one other crucial issue: the Bible is not just a book of theology, it is also a book of history, in other words, it discusses many subjects, including war, conquest, greed, wickedness, and yes, even different types of slavery that has been practiced.

There is a fundamental difference between mentioning slavery and promoting slavery. The Declaration of Independence mentions, in great detail, various despotic abuses practiced by the King of England, but it was not PROMOTING or CONDONING those activities, obviously.

Not only does the Bible mention the historical context of slavery/servanthood, it also contains many prohibitions and regulations about it's practice. But remember, not all slavery is slavery---in other words, there is Spoils-Slavery, Voluntary Servanthood, and Kidnap-Slavery (the kind practiced in the 16th to 19th century).

Words matter, especially in this heated topic. But what about the Hebrew word(s) most often rendered SLAVE or SLAVERY in the Old Testament? Do they mean the type of deplorable situation we had in America over a century ago? Hardly. Scholar Kyle Butts, M.A. offers this:

"The Hebrew word ebed is similar to the Greek doulos, in that it can be translated as “slave” or “servant.” In Exodus 4:10, Moses referred to himself as the “servant” (ebed) of God. Abraham called himself the ebed of the angels who came to visit him in Genesis 18:3. In Genesis 39:17-19, Potiphar’s wife described Joseph as the Hebrew ebed, and Genesis 24:2 talks about the eldest ebed in Abraham’s house, who “ruled over all he had.”

The purpose of including this brief description of the two most common terms for a slave is to show that our modern use of the word slave generally evokes mental images of cruelty, injustice, and bondage against a person’s will. While such ideas could be included in the biblical usage, they do not necessarily fit every time the words are used. Instead, the picture that we often see when the biblical words for “slave” are employed is a mutually beneficial arrangement similar to an employer/employee relationship."

Here's a little nugget for the skeptics of Christianity to consider: the type of Kidnap-Slavery that was endemic to "American" slavery is PROHIBITED (under the penalty of death) in the Bible. In just one verse, the Bible itself eliminates nearly the entire case for those who wish to malign and smear the Word of God, and who ultimately desire to cast moral doubts upon the character of God Himself.

Exodus 21:16
“Whoever kidnaps a person and sells him (as a slave), or if he is found in his hand (as a slave), shall surely be put to death. "

Far from an isolated verse, this prohibition and deadly-indictment is repeated in the Book of Deutoronomy as well. Understand this one thing---the type of "slavery" practiced in America over 150 years ago was an immoral, Bible-condemned sin, punishable by death (for either the kidnapper or the buyer). You cannot equivocate what was done in the Americas (or elsewhere) and use the Bible to support it. Period.


Most of the passages in the Bible that speak of, even regulate "slavery" (improper term if narrowly defined as similar to what was done in the Americas), they actually refer to Voluntary Servanthood. God allowed the Israelites to contract with people for services-rendered-cash-up-front arrangements. There are many and varied provisions to regulate this business model, no less legitimate, even if some of these parameters seem odd to us in the 21st century.

Just as we have modern legislation which define rights and delineate the boundaries of acceptable behavior in the workplace, the Lord was the first to legislate a well-defined set of employee-employer laws.

"So, although there are rules about slavery in the Bible, those rules exist to protect the slave. Injuring or killing slaves was punishable - up to death of the offending party. Hebrews were commanded not to make their slave work on the Sabbath, slander a slave, have sex with another man's slave, or return an escaped slave. A Hebrew was not to enslave his fellow countryman, even if he owed him money, but was to have him work as a hired worker, and he was to be released in 7 years or in the year of jubilee (which occurred every 50 years), whichever came first. In fact, the slave owner was encouraged to "pamper his slave". (LINK)

There was also the issue of dealing with defeated survivors of wars, those often left destitute when their husbands, fathers, or other primary providers had been severely wounded or killed. Should they be left to starve, or taken in and placed into some type of mutually beneficial prisoner of war or adoption scenario?

In a famous debate about the existence of God, theist Kyle Butt, M.A., was pressed by his atheist opponent about many topics, including slavery. His entire answer is found HERE, but I would like to quote, at length, a key issue worth noting at this juncture:

"Often, those who attack the Bible skirt the real crux of the slavery issue. They point to verses in the Old Testament that offer a particular regulation for slavery. From there, they proceed to argue that the Bible is a vile book that does not condemn, but actually condones slavery. And, they argue, since all slavery is morally wrong, the Bible must not be the product of a loving God."

He continues...

"However, those who take such a position fail to consider that certain types of slavery are not morally wrong. For instance, when a man is convicted of murder, he often is sentenced to life in prison. During his life sentence, he is forced by the State to do (or not do) certain things. He is justly confined to a small living space, and his freedoms are revoked. Sometimes, he is compelled by the State to work long hours, for which he does not receive even minimum wage. Would it be justifiable to label such a loss of freedom as a type of slavery? Yes, it would. However, is his loss of freedom a morally permissible situation? Certainly. He has become a slave of the State because he violated certain laws that were designed to ensure the liberty of his fellow citizen, whom he murdered. Therefore, one fact that must be conceded by anyone dealing with the Bible and its position on slavery is the fact that, under some conditions, slavery is not necessarily a morally deplorable institution."

Shocking...most people have never considered all of the various types of "slavery" (servanthood) that are not morally wrong, indeed, some are necessary for the good of society, and of individuals. They have not been exposed to this list, including:

(1) slavery experienced by incarcerated criminals 
(2) voluntary servanthood (to pay debts)
(3) indentured servanthood (trading services for pay and skills)
(4) adoption of war survivors
(5) modern day employer-employee relationship
(which would clearly be defined as slavery/servanthood under both Old Testament and New Testament usage).

The above are 5 examples of moral and necessary types of "slavery" (servanthood). None of these are what typically come to mind when the modern skeptic thinks about "slavery".  Remember, when it comes to what occurred in the Americas from the 16th to the 17th century, the Bible is VERY clear:

Exodus 21:16
“Whoever kidnaps a person and sells him (as a slave), or if he is found in his hand (as a slave), shall surely be put to death. "

Furthermore, it should be noted that the Lord commanded the release of certain categories of slaves (servants) on the seventh year.

" (the slave) shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him."  (Deut. 15:12-18)

Some would object, and claim that: "Well, if there were a god, and He wrote the Bible, then I would expect that He would have stopped all slavery in whatever form!"

Really? Are we willing to deny people free will to achieve a single objective such as you request? There is, of course, multiple problems with this approach, as one apologist notes:

"This...runs up against a philosophical problem known as 'supererogation'. It’s a common scenario one considers: "given some situation X, couldn't God have improved it incrementally by at least 1% more? And if He could and didn't, doesn’t this say something negative about God?" The supererogation problem arises in such an argument when it becomes obvious that that statement may be too vacuous/vague to stand as an argument. For example, if X humans are good (in the biblical system), can't God improve the universe incrementally by making just one more person (one more instance of goodness), giving an even better X+1 persons? And then, if X+1 persons are good, couldn't He make X+2, etc, etc, etc…you see the problem? Some goodness-sets are not bounded in themselves but only by other constraints (e.g., resources to sustain population, overcrowding psychological problems). But, one might ask, why can't God also make the Earth bigger, and make the resources more abundant? He could, and then the infinite regress would continue--increase the population by 10% more, inflate the earth by 10% more, increase the natural resources by 10%…and on and on and on and on…"  (LINK)


As we finish this brief overview of the "challenge" of slavery/servanthood in the Bible, it would be important to turn the tables, so to speak, and ask the atheist/agnostic skeptic the following question:

"What is wrong with slavery?"

You see, those who deny the reality of God, who appeal to meaningless laws of nature as our true origin, have neither foundation nor ammunition from which to cast stones at Bible-believing Christians. If there is no god, then there is ultimately no "right" or "wrong", evil, injustice, or immorality.

So, returning to our question, ask the skeptic: "What is WRONG with slavery?" They cannot logically answer that question, for there can be no WRONG in an atheistic worldview, let alone an "evil" of "slavery." They cannot appeal to some type of "right of freedom" for that implies a transcendent rights-giver (sorry, not allowed).

Furthermore, since we can show moral reasons, indeed socially necessary reasons for slavery (incarceration, voluntary servanthood, indentured servants, employer/employee relationship, etc.) where then does this leave the supposed "high-ground" of the skeptical challenger? Has it not completely eroded beneath their castle built upon sand?


In the Old Testament, the Lord allowed the Jewish people to purchase servants (slaves) from the nations around them. Once again, we have to put aside our modern American notion of "slavery," especially when you read of the families of the patriarchs, where their servants were elevated to the status of family.  There is even a famous account of Abraham giving a whole arsenal of weapons to 300 of his servants in a rescue attempt of his kidnapped nephew, Lot. Of course, if these were abused, unhappy, disgruntled, only-there-by-the-chains-and-irons-around-their-legs types of "slaves"---do you think that: (1) Abraham would load them down with weapons, (2) that they would actually have returned after leaving the region, (3) they would not have killed their "masters"?

This was clearly not the case. Once again, we have rid ourselves of the presuppositions and emotional responses that American abuses have added to our understanding of "slavery."

But, what about the Lord allowing Israelis to buy slaves from the nations around them?

Here is a perspective that is almost never considered, let alone offered up for discussion. Israel was the only nation that truly possessed and preserved the truth about the one true, creator God. They were the one nation that God would use to bring us the scriptures, and ultimately, the Savior, Jesus Christ. Think about all of those "slaves" that were acquired by Jews. If those "slaves" had been left at home, or sold as slaves to other nations, what would be the chances that they would have heard the truth of the Lord, and to ultimately come into a saving knowledge of Him? Pretty slim.

If one considers the incredible opportunity of entering a relationship with God by way of a less-than-perfect Earthly relationship of servanthood, then clearly that single benefit outweighs all objections. It's like a lost sailor, adrift in the ocean, who by chance comes to a remote alcove and there discovers treasures untold. The unfortunate situation of being lost is outweighed by the discovery of something truly valuable.

Many of those servants purchased by Jewish families could have come to a saving knowledge of the Lord, and then, after their freedom was regained, returned home to be witnesses for Him as well. Only eternity will tell of the countless multitudes who were saved in the spiritual by an arrangement that was primarily physical.

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