Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Slavery in the Bible: Some Perspectives on a Difficult Topic

* My notes from a Bible study on slavery in the Bible.  This is a work in progress.  Part of a series on Tough Topics and Texts in the Bible.

Old Testament Ethics: Slavery

1.     Big Picture: Looking at the Bible’s grand narrative

a.     Creation: no slavery

                                               i.     “As we approach the Bible’s presentation of humanity as it relates to slavery and sexism, we must distinguish between the way the world was when God created it good and the way it became after humans sinned and God leveled judgment and curse on both transgressors and the world they inhabited.”[1]

                                              ii.     “We don’t know exactly when slavery was first practiced, but the first mention of it in the Bible comes when Noah curses the descendants of his youngest son: ‘Canaan will be cursed.  He will be the lowest of slaves to his brothers’ (Gen 9:25).  This shows that slavery was not part of God’s original good creation.  Rather, slavery is mentioned in response to the sin of Ham.”[2]

                                            iii.     Some things permitted but not ideal: Matthew 19.8

1.     Steve Hays comments:

“Here's one distinction: there's a difference between commanding evil and permitting evil. To command evil would be wrong. But permitting evil isn't necessarily wrong. 

I'd say the Mosaic law never commands evils. It does permit certain kinds of evil, but it mitigates the evils it permits. 

Some laws are prescriptive or proscriptive while others are permissive. In theory, the Mosaic law could forbid every kind of evil, but that would be unenforceable: an empty gesture. Instead, the Mosaic law improves on the status quo ante.”[3]

b.     Future eternal state: no slavery

c.      Jesus’ goal: release the captives… set free those oppressed (Luke 4.18; cf. Isaiah 66.1-2)

2.     The Word “Slavery”: Caution in Connotations

a.     The word “slavery” is loaded with connotations of race-based chattel slavery of the 19th century leading to the Civil War.

b.     Harriet Beecher Stowe in Uncle Tom’s Cabin described antebellum (pre-Civil War) slavery: “The legal power of the master amounts to an absolute despotism over body and soul,” and “there is no protection for the slave’s life.”[4]

                                               i.     Watch for the biblical portrait of slavery—does it match this description given by Stowe?

                                              ii.     In what ways is OT slavery different?

c.      The word in our English versions is used to cover a number of different concepts

d.     Slavery is not one thing in the OT

3.     Kinds of Slavery in OT

a.     Punishment

                                               i.     Nations surrounding Israel

1.     Involved in idolatry
2.     Child sacrifice

                                              ii.     Theft: Exodus 22.1-3

                                            iii.     “Being sold into slavery was often a government-regulated punishment based on a criminal action.  One can see, then, that it is morally permissible to revoke freedoms of certain people or groups of people based on their inappropriate conduct.”[5]

                                            iv.     We do this in our constitutional Republic: see 13th Amendment, section one of U.S. Constitution

1.     “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

2.     “And this is not a punishment that we resort to on rare occasions either.  There are over two million people currently incarcerated in the United States.  You think that slavery is gone because on your way to work you don’t drive by anybody working in the cotton fields.  That is because our system of slavery has built a massive network of kennels to store people out of sight in six-foot by eight-foot cells.  You might say that these people are restricted in their liberty because they were convicted of crimes.  Many of them were, and every society has a right to protect itself—ours included—and so perhaps you ought not to ride a high horse when it comes to ancient societies protecting themselves as well.”[6]

b.     Mutually beneficial relationship

                                               i.     Job 31.13-15

                                              ii.     Abraham

1.     Eliezer

a.     Born in Abraham’s house: Genesis 15.3
b.     Ruled: Genesis 24.2

2.     318 servants armed to help Lot: Genesis 14.14-15

“If the slave/owner relationship was anything less than mutually trusting, Abraham most likely would not have intentionally armed his slaves.”[7]

                                            iii.     Seen in laws that regulate the institution

1.     Deuteronomy 15.16-17: servant may not want to leave

2.     Deuteronomy 23.15-16: escaped slave from foreign nation is not to be returned

3.     Exodus 21.16: death penalty for kidnapping and sale of person

c.      Debt resolution: Leviticus 25.47-49

                                               i.     “An Israelite servant’s guaranteed eventual release within 7 years was a control or regulation to prevent the abuse and institutionalizing of such positions.  The release-year reminded the Israelites that poverty-induced servanthood was not an ideal social arrangement.  On the other hand, servanthood existed in Israel precisely because poverty existed: no poverty, no servants in Israel.  And if servants lived in Israel, this was voluntary (typically poverty-induced)—not forced.”[8]

                                              ii.     “Slavery in the Old Testament is not the horrible institution known by the same name in the modern western countries, for it often approximated employer and employee relationships, but there were aspects of it that were subject to abuse and the law spoke to these.”[9]

4.     Some Difficult Passages in the Old Testament

a.     Exodus 21.20-21

“If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished.  If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property.”

                                               i.     “The aim of this law was not to place the slave at the mercy of the master, but to restrict the master’s power over his slaves.  Simply put, proof was needed only of a master’s malice or of his murderous intent.  In cases where the slave lived ‘a day or two’ after the chastisement, the benefit of doubt was given to the master only because proof became more difficult.  But if the slave died immediately, no more proof was needed and presumably laws such as Exodus 21:12 would be operative.”[10]

                                              ii.     “The mere risk of jeopardizing one’s investment—for it must not be forgotten that in the case of a fellow Hebrew, this was like a bank loan situation (‘he s his property [or money], v. 21)—was a powerful deterrent.  Even the slightest injury to one part of the body entitled the slave to his full freedom and exemption from any further obligation to pay back the debt with his labor power (Exod. 21:26-27).  Thus all disciplinary actions by a master had better be held in check or some would come within a hair’s-breadth of loosing [sic] their shirts in a fit of temper!  Hitting a master where it hurt—in the pocketbook—reinforced the value system that said people were more important than investments.  This law is almost unprecedented in the ancient Near East where men usually treated their slaves as they pleased.”[11]

b.     Exodus 21.26-27

“If a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye.  And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth.”

                                               i.     “This law is equally unparalleled in protecting the male or female slave from arbitrary assault by the master.  The granting of freedom, as Noth points out, is a kind of reparation since it represents a forfeiture of the purchase price of the slave.  The inclusion of the ‘tooth’ indicates that the law does not intend only grievous bodily harm, but any unwarranted assault.  The basic humanity of the slave is given precedence over his property status.  According to Childs, ‘A slave is not freed because of property damage, but because he is an oppressed human being.  For this reason the loss of a tooth represents an act of abuse as well as the loss of an eye’—that is, even though loss of a tooth could not detrimentally affect his usefulness as working ‘property.’”[12]

                                              ii.     “The law, if it were to have any meaningful legal (as distinct from merely charitable) force, must presuppose that there were some circumstances in which a slave could appeal to judicial authority against his own master, that in some situations a slave could have definite legal status as a person, notwithstanding his normal status as purchased property.”[13]

c.      Leviticus 19.20-21

                                               i.     Translational issue

KJV: And whosoever lieth carnally with a woman, that is a bondmaid, betrothed to an husband, and not at all redeemed, nor freedom given her; she shall be scourged; they shall not be put to death, because she was not free. 21 And he shall bring his trespass offering unto the Lord, unto the door of the tabernacle of the congregation, even a ram for a trespass offering.

            NASB95: Now if a man lies carnally with a woman who is a slave acquired for another man, but who has in no way been redeemed nor given her freedom, there shall be punishment; they shall not, however, be put to death, because she was not free. He shall bring his guilt offering to the Lord to the doorway of the tent of meeting, a ram for a guilt offering.

            ESV: If a man lies sexually with a woman who is a slave, assigned to another man and not yet ransomed or given her freedom, a distinction shall be made. They shall not be put to death, because she was not free; 21 but he shall bring his compensation to the Lord, to the entrance of the tent of meeting, a ram for a guilt offering.

            NIV: If a man sleeps with a female slave who is promised to another man but who has not been ransomed or given her freedom, there must be due punishment. Yet they are not to be put to death, because she had not been freed. 21 The man, however, must bring a ram to the entrance to the tent of meeting for a guilt offering to the Lord.

NKJV: Whoever lies carnally with a woman who is betrothed to a man as a concubine, and who has not at all been redeemed nor given her freedom, for this there shall be scourging; but they shall not be put to death, because she was not free. 21 And he shall bring his trespass offering to the Lord, to the door of the tabernacle of meeting, a ram as a trespass offering.

                                              ii.     Some have argued that based on the KJV rendering the woman slave is scourged but the man merely has to offer a ram for repentance.

                                            iii.     Modern translations recognize that this is a faulty rendering.  Both parties are given the same recompense and the man must offer a ram for sacrifice.

5.     The New Testament and Slavery

a.     Challenge: Jesus and the apostles do not challenge or seek to overthrow slavery.  They allow the institution to stand and even encourage slaves to obey their masters: Ephesians 6.5-8; Colossians 3.22-25; 1 Peter 2.18-19.

b.     Perspective is needed to properly contextualize the NT and slavery.

c.      Some types of slavery in the NT were due to debt—the revoking of freedoms until a debt was paid.  Matthew 5.25-26 seems to indicate this kind of situation (cf. Matthew 18.21-35).

d.     Mentioning a topic doesn’t mean God condones it or approves of it

                                               i.     Jesus mentioned turning the other cheek but this doesn’t mean he condones the one doing the slapping (Matthew 5.39).

                                              ii.     Paul urges Christians to honor the government but this doesn’t mean he condones everything the government does (Romans 13.1-7).

e.     The culture of the time did not allow for large-scale revolution on the issue of slavery.  Christians had to navigate the times with wisdom and engage in a longer-term project of undercutting slavery.

                                               i.     Slaves and Slavery in the Greco-Roman World[14]

1.     Estimates: 85-90% of the inhabitants of Rome and peninsula Italy were slaves or of slave origins.

2.     Beginning of the 1st century the number of manumitted slaves (freed persons) increased dramatically.  This caused Caesar Augustus to pass laws governing the number and ages of slaves who could legitimately be set free.

3.     Germanic slaves led a revolt under Spartacus in 73 BC.

4.     “Slaves of eastern origin, on the other hand, enjoyed great popularity at Rome.  They were trusted household servants, teachers, librarians, accountants and estate managers.  They were manumitted by the thousands in the late Republic and early Empire.”[15]

                                              ii.     “Christianity arose in a real-life, tension-filled setting.  The slave insurrections had already failed, causing significant injury, sorrow, and loss of life.  On the positive side, ‘the social position of the slaves was not seen as a human disqualification.’  Working within these tensions, however, the seeds of abolition were sown.  No epistle expressed that better and more powerfully than Philemon.”[16]

                                            iii.     “What then could Christian slaves (who had no legal rights regarding their masters' abuse) and Christian citizens (who stood on the cusp of legal prosecution for their faith) do when experiencing abuse? Their best response was to let their godly behavior challenge unjust treatment and unjust slander, which is precisely what Peter repeatedly prescribes (2:12,1&-20; 3:16). Peter's admonition for those abused to submit passively and entrust themselves to God would probably be very appropriate today in fundamentalistic Muslim cultures governed by strict Islamic law (Sharia). In these settings, abused women have few legal rights or protections, so a passive response and faith in God might well be the best response. In other cultural settings, particularly in the West, various options for challenging the evil of physical abuse would be available and quite appropriate for abused believers.”[17]

                                            iv.     “Jesus and the apostles didn’t go on an anti-slavery crusade, because doing so would have been futile and a hindrance to their primary mission.  The priority of Jesus was the provision of salvation.  For the apostles it was the proclamation of the gospel.  But both Jesus and the apostles undermined the basis for slavery by making it clear that God equally loves the rich and poor, free and slave, male and female.  The apostles also welcomed into the church and gave equal status to all who believed, regardless of race, gender, nationality, or social position.”[18]

f.      Subtle opposition to slavery in the NT

                                               i.     Repudiated slave trading: 1 Timothy 1.9-10; Revelation 18.11-13

                                              ii.     Equality within the church. 

1.     To be spoken of and to as in Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Peter spoke of their equality in the church.

“Paul taught equality.  Colossians 3:18-4.1 contains some basic principles.  Slaves served Christ in spite of their economic situation.  Their owners were also slaves, only they were slaves to the Master in heaven.  This equality was to lead the way to sympathy one for the other.  Further, God called people to serve him in varied circumstances, and he judged impartially.  The application of these principles would bring a de facto end to the institution.”[19]

2.     Slave names in Romans 16

“The names of those mentioned in Romans 16 suggest that many had been slaves.  Andronicus [v. 7] and Urbanus [v.9] were exclusively slave names in the literature and inscriptions of Paul’s day.”[20]

                                            iii.     Practices in the church served to undermine slavery—do not underestimate the power of these symbolic actions!

1.     Holy kiss

2.     Language of “brethren,” “brothers,” and “sisters”

* The words of F. F. Bruce regarding Philemon seem to apply more broadly here as well: “What this letter does is to bring us into an atmosphere in which the institution could only wilt and die.”[21]

                                            iv.     Paul encouraged slaves to acquire freedom if possible: 1 Corinthians 7.20-22.

                                              v.     In Ephesians 6 when Paul mentions slaves and masters he does not quote Scripture as he does when discussing the other aspects of the household such as husbands/wives and fathers/children.

     [1] James M. Hamilton, “Does the Bible Condone Slavery and Sexism?” 337.  Available online:
     [2] Hamilton, “Does the Bible Condone Slavery and Sexism?” 341.
     [4] Quoted in Paul Copan “Does the Old Testament Endorse Slavery? An Overview” Enrichment Journal (Spring, 2011).  Available online:
     [5] Kyle Butt, “The Bible and Slavery.”  Available online:
     [6] Douglas Wilson, Letter from a Christian Citizen: A Response to Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris (Powder Springs, Georgia: American Vision, 2007), 25-26.
     [7] Kyle Butt, “The Bible and Slavery.”  Available online:
     [8] Copan “Does the Old Testament Endorse Slavery? An Overview.”
     [9] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1983), 98.
     [10] Kaiser, Jr. Toward Old Testament Ethics, 102.
     [11] Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics, 102.
     [12] Christopher J. H. Wright, God’s People in God’s Land: Family, Land, and Property in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990), 243.
     [13] Wright, God’s People in God’s Land, 244.
     [14] A. A. Rupprecht, “Slave, Slavery” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, eds. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 881.
     [15] A. A. Rupprecht, “Slave, Slavery,” 881.
     [16] Richard R. Melick, Jr. Philippians, Colossians, Philemon—The New American Commentary vol. 32 (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman, 1991), 343. 
     [17] Steven Tracy, “Domestic Violence in the Church and Redemptive Suffering” Calvin Theological Journal 41 (2006), 290.  Available online:
     [18] Herb Vander Lugt quoted in Kyle Butt, “The Bible and Slavery.” 
     [19] Richard R. Melick, Jr. Philippians, Colossians, Philemon—The New American Commentary vol. 32 (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman, 1991), 344.
     [20] A. A. Rupprecht, “Slave, Slavery” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, eds. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 882.
     [21] F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1977), 401.