Slavery in the Bible: Is the Good Book Really "Good?"
Here is the text with endnotes included...
Slavery and the Bible: Is the Good Book Really “Good?”
It was spoken less as a question and more as a challenge:
“Why does anyone think this is a good book?!”
Someone had brought up a number of pieces of the Old Testament legislation as examples to be mocked and this brought forth the incredulity regarding the Bible’s moral value. In previous generations the Bible was seen as the “good book” but today it is more likely to be thought of as a work that is oppressive and morally deficient.
One of the particular items brought forward to show the Bible’s moral failure was the law contained in Exodus 21:20-21—with specific focus on verse 21:
20If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. 21If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property.
It was alleged that this ethical stipulation allowed Israelites to beat their slaves and, as long as they didn’t die within a day or two, everything was okay.
In light of such a law what kinds of answers can be given to the question, “Why does anyone think this is a good book?” Actually, there are a number of things to be said in response! The following provides a close reading of the law in Exodus 21:21 in light of both the immediate context as well as the larger narrative structure of the Bible. This is done to model what a fair reading of the text looks like as well as strengthen the faith of those who affirm the Bible as a “good book.”
Reading the Details in Light of the Whole Bible
First, let us grant, for the sake of argument only, that this item mentioned in Exodus 21:21 is somehow morally deficient. This, in and of itself, does not render the whole Bible less than good. There are all sorts of transcendentally good things in the Bible: ethical stipulations centered in love, narratives of heroic and self-giving actions, beautiful poetry in praise of God than aligns with the human emotional element, and, ultimately, its portrayal of Jesus Christ as the unique Son of God both in his teaching and in his actions of redemptive healing. In other words, to take one (or a few) ethical stipulations that one finds questionable and indict the whole Bible shows either a lack of literary sensitivity or a failure to read the entire Bible.
But is it the case that this law in Exodus 21:21 calls into question the moral integrity of the Bible? Has the law been understood correctly in its larger contexts? Consider the following analogy. Take, as an example, the sentence, “A man cut a child open.” This sentence is consistent with at least three different scenarios. (1) A murderer killing a child with a knife, (2) A medical examiner performing an autopsy on a dead child’s body, and (3) A professional surgeon performing a life-saving operation on a child. These three different scenarios are open to vastly different moral evaluations due to the varying contexts. Simply analyzing the phrase “A man cut a child open” is insufficient. Larger contextual issues must be taken into account to accurately assess what is going on. The same is true for the legislation contained in Exodus 21:21.
Contextual Issues to Note
When examining this issue the numerous contexts should be kept in mind or else misunderstanding will soon set in. First, the immediate context should be read and understood. Exodus 21:21 appears in a section of the Mosaic law code dealing with issues of personal injury. The law code distinguishes between pre-meditated murder and, what we would call, manslaughter (Exodus 21:12-14). When coming to talk about how slaves are to be treated Exodus 21:20 states: “If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished.” Old Testament specialist David L. Baker writing in the book The Humanisation of Slavery in the Old Testament argues that the term “punished” in verse 20:
“[P]robably implies the death penalty, which means that a master who kills his slave is treated as a murderer and receives the same punishment as for killing a free person. Thus the law provides some protection for slaves from cruel treatment by their masters, and recognizes the life of a slave to be of equal value to that of any other human being.”1
Reading verse 21 in light of this context causes Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser to comment:
“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.”2
Exodus 21:21 is thus setting a kind of statute of limitations to offer guidance on how to apply Exodus 21:20. The law is thus not given to facilitate but, rather, to mitigate abuse.
Not only this, but just a few verses after Exodus 21:21 there is the following piece of legislation:
26If 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. 27And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth.
A number of Old Testament specialists have argued that this legislation is almost unparalleled in the ancient Near East context. Christopher Wright notes, “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.”3 This leads Wright to conclude:
“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.”4
These laws bring us into a context which is far removed from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s description in Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “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.”
So back to the question: “Why does anyone think this is a good book?” One answer is that someone who had to live in the ancient Near Eastern context outside of Israel would have found these provisions good. They would have seen these laws as good because, as David Baker states, “slave abuse is considered in terms of human rights rather than property rights.”5
A second contextual issue to note is the placement of Exodus 21:21 in the larger context of the book of Exodus itself. Old Testament scholar Joe Sprinkle notes that the specific legislative stipulations of Exodus 21-23 must be read in light of the larger narrative concerns of Exodus 19-24 and, beyond that, in light of the deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt.6 Sprinkle draws attention to the fact of the prominence and placement of slave laws in the Mosaic law in relation to other ancient Near Eastern law codes. Sprinkle also notes that these provisions in Exodus 21 are intimately related to other laws in Exodus 22 regarding the sojourner, widow, orphan, and the poor. He concludes:
“This is not accidental. The disadvantaged classes of Exod 22:22–27, the sojourner, the widow, the orphan, and the poor, were the very people most subject to becoming enslaved on the basis of unpaid debts. Israel itself had become enslaved in Egypt after entering it as sojourners, as the regulation itself suggests: “Do not oppress a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Exod 23:9). The experience of Israel in Egypt recorded by the narrative is thus the basis for the motive clause promoting legal obedience.”7
Again, “Why does anyone think this is a good book?” Those most subject to abuse due to their disadvantage class would find the provisions in the Mosaic law as protections rather than burdens.
Canonical Context: Keeping an Eye on the Big Picture
The Bible is a big book and is important to keep an eye on the large narrative that is moving in the Scriptures. The Bible has as a beginning, an end, and a center-piece focused in Jesus Christ. All these have relevance to how to interpret the issue of slavery in the Bible. Consider the beginning. In Genesis chapters one and two there is the creation of man and woman. There is no slavery or provision for slavery. James Hamilton aptly notes:
“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.”8
Moving to the end of the Bible we see that in the eternal state there is no slavery. The fullness of freedom comes to all of God’s people and even the creation itself (Romans 8:21). Thus, these two narrative markers—creation and glorification—reveal God’s intentionality with regards to slavery. It was not the original design nor is it the eternal destination. This may help explain why when the apostle Paul discusses various household relationships in his letters he quotes Scripture as undergirding the marriage relationship (Ephesians 5:31) and the parent/child relationship (Ephesians 6:2-3) but when he discusses the master and slave relationship he never quotes the Old Testament Scriptures. The other two family relationships are grounded in creation but slavery is not so, therefore, he does not quote a supportive proof-text.
When coming to look at Jesus and his teaching it has often been noted that the words of Isaiah 66:1-2 are a template for Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God.
18The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, 19to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord (Luke 4:18-19)
It is Jesus’ intention and goal to bring about release for the captives. Now some will note that Jesus did not go on a crusade to set free literal slaves from Roman oppression. This is true but must be seen in light of Jesus’ larger Kingdom purposes. He was going after the larger issue of slavery to sin (John 8:31-36). The New Testament teaches the centrality of this liberation from sin and its consequences. Furthermore, by doing this Jesus sets in motion a revolution that will ultimately do away with all slaveries in human history as God’s Kingdom purposes are worked out over time.
So again, the question, “Why would anyone think this is a good book?” has a number of relevant answers from this larger canonical context. God’s goodness expressed in creation and God’s profound goodness promised in the future both give us positive reason to affirm the Bible’s goodness. Of course, for Christians the central glory of Jesus Christ is the supreme goodness revealed to us in the pages of Scripture. Ultimately, the revelation of Jesus himself contained in the Bible is the great reason to think the Bible is a “good book.”
Historical Considerations: How the Bible Influences History
The Kingdom revolution began by Jesus Christ in human history has moved through the corridor of time in influential ways regarding slavery. Thomas Schirrmacher is the president of the International Council of the International Society for Human Rights and has written about the role of Christianity in the reduction of slavery in history and around the world. He notes how the early church allowed the complete participation of slaves in their congregations. Slaves were able to become clerics and bishops. Schirrmacher draws attention to the most famous example—Bishop Kallist (d. 222 A.D.), “who went from slavery to become the highest representative of the church as Bishop of Rome.”9 He also draws attention to various Synods of the Church:
“The Synod of Chalons in France declared the following in 650 A.D.: ‘The highest piety and religion demands that Christianity be completely freed from the chains of slavery.’ in 922 A.D. the Koblenz Synod in the East Frankish Empire came to the resolution that the sale of a Christian was to be considered murder.’”10
Schirrmacher draws attention to a number of other medieval developments on this issue and then, of course, draws attention to the role of evangelical Christianity in the abolishing of slavery in England under the leadership of William Wilberforce. He quotes the German scholar Egon Flaig as demonstrating that this opposition to slavery “is indebted to the longest and most intensive fight for the liberation of mankind. Those who carried on this battle are not to be found in Enlightenment philosophy; where one makes a find is in the spiritual realm of Protestant minorities.”11 Schirrmacher further notes:
“In 1975 Roger Anstey defended and documented the thesis that Evangelicals were so strongly opposed to slavery because they understood conversion and redemption to be from the slavery of sin into the freedom of the gospel, and for that reason could only view slavery negatively. The fight against slavery was an ‘end in itself’ for Evangelicals and a moral truth that could not be surrendered.”12
Schirrmacher goes on to outline the evangelical contribution to the stand against slavery in America where some scholars estimate that two-thirds of the anti-slavery movement consisted of Evangelicals.
Yet once more, “Why would anyone think this is a good book?” Well, it is this book that has provided the impetus for so many Christians throughout human history to work at great cost to end slavery. The quest continues today. Estimates of current-day slavery range from 27-100 million depending on the definition used.13 There are more slaves today than at any other time in human history! This produces a fascinating historical irony. Although the vast majority of nations today sign on to international treaties outlawing slavery there is more slavery today, whereas while the Bible mentions slavery in both the Old and New Testaments, it is the worldview flowing from the Bible that historically undermines the institution of slavery.14 Thomas Schirrmacher’s words are an apt conclusion to this short look at the Bible and slavery:
“The Old and New Testaments did not totally outlaw slavery in all circumstances, but the comprehensive provisions for the legal protection of servants and maidservants, as well as the right to be redeemed through the use of a slaves’ own possessions or by others, fundamentally distinguishes the slavery that is described there from the later slavery of the 15th to the 18th centuries and from the present, illegal slavery that occurs everywhere. It is no wonder that …, the thought established itself that God was completely against modern slavery and that all slaves should be set free.”15
And we learned all this from the “Good Book”—the Bible.
Richard Klaus graduated from Phoenix Seminary and is a former pastor. He is currently the Ratio Christi (ratiochristi.org) Chapter Director for the campus of Glendale Community College (AZ).
1. David L. Baker, “The Humanisation of Slavery in the Old Testament” in The Humanisation of Slavery in the Old Testament edited by Thomas Schirrmacher (Verlag für Kultur und Wissenschaft, 2015), 15-16. Online: https://www.bucer.de/fileadmin/dateien/Dokumente/Buecher/WoT_8_-_Thomas_Schirrmacher__ed.__-_The_Humanization_of_Slavery_in_the_OT.pdf.
2. Walter Kaiser, Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1983), 102.
3. 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.
4. Christopher J. H. Wright, God’s People in God’s Land: Family, Land, and Property in the Old Testament, 244.
5. David L. Baker, “The Humanisation of Slavery in the Old Testament,” 16.
6. Joe M. Sprinkle, “Law and Narrative in Exodus 19-23” Journal for the Evangelical Theological Society 47 (June, 2004), 241-242.
7. Joe M. Sprinkle, “Law and Narrative in Exodus 19-23,” 245.
8. James M. Hamilton, “Does the Bible Condone Slavery and Sexism?” 341. Online: http://jimhamilton.info/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Does-the-Bible-Condone-Slavery-and-Sexism.pdf.
9. Thomas Schirrmacher, “Slavery in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, and Today: With Special Research on ‘The Role of Evangelicals in the Abolition of Slavery’” in The Humanisation of Slavery in the Old Testament, 56.
10. Thomas Schirrmacher, “Slavery in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, and Today,” 58.
11. Thomas Schirrmacher, “Slavery in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, and Today,” 62.
12. Thomas Schirrmacher, “Slavery in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, and Today,” 66.
13. Thomas Schirrmacher, “Slavery in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, and Today,” 71-72.
14. John Warwick Montgomery, “Slavery, Human Dignity and Human Rights” in The Humanisation of Slavery in the Old Testament, 21-25.
15. Thomas Schirrmacher, “Slavery in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, and Today,” 75.