Tuesday, May 01, 2007

A Metaphysical Club post on slavery and the Bible

A post from the Metaphysical Club on slavery and the Bible. Was the slavery of the Old an New Testaments the same as the slavery written about in Uncle Tom's Cabin?


exapologist said...

Hmmm... How about, oh I don't know, say, Exodus 21:20-21

If a man smite a slave, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall surely be punished. But, if he live for a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his property.

(I just love how the NIV translators distorted the passage in their version, so that v. 21 makes it read roughly "if he get up after a day or two" -- just precious)

See philosopher Michael Huemer's list of scary bible passages -- his introductory remarks (linked there) are worth a look as well.

Anonymous said...

Actually, it was different from chattel slavery, which was my point. Some points:

1. Slaves had to be let go after six years. (Exodus 21:2)
2. In the very passage you quoted there is punishment for the master that is beats the slave to death.
3. Slavery could also be a good thing in their situation. It was not an ideal world, and slavery in the bible served the poor. A poor person could sell themselves into slavery in order to save themselves from starvation.
Example: If a countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to you that he sells himself to you, you shall not subject him to a slave's service.

40'He shall be with you as a hired man, as (B)if he were a sojourner; he shall serve with you until the year of jubilee.
41'He shall then go out from you, he and his sons with him, and shall go back to his family, that he may return to the property of his forefathers.
42'For they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; they are not to be sold in a slave sale.
43'(C)You shall not rule over him with severity, but are to revere your God.

4. The law was not absolute in the sense of covering all situations. It is much like our constitution taking specific cases and applying them to other problems in Israelite soceity.
5. Exodus 21:26 "WHen a man strikes the eye of his slave male or female and destroys it, he shall let the slave go free because of his eye. If he knocks out the tooth of his slave, male or female, he shall let the slave go free because of his tooth.
6. Exodus commands a day of rest. "...but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it (A)you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you."

I do not claim to know everything, my simple point in the blog entry was to caution people against equating slavery in all cases; as if slavery is the same across all periods of history. It would also be interesting to see how what we should think about the law should be tempered by the fact that other passages speak of treating foriegners with respect:
"'When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. 34 The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God."

exapologist said...

Hi LW,

I see your point, but I don't see how it helps if, whether the nature of OT slavery differs from the slavery of the American past, the kinds of human relations that the OT endorses are still immoral. Do you really think that the sort of thing endorsed in the passage I quoted is a *good* thing? If not, then I think your point is moot.

I think I should be frank here: how do you live with yourself when you endorse these passages? I mean this seriously, and not as an instance of mudslinging: shame on you.

Edwardtbabinski said...

Dear Love's Work,
Hello. I'm a former Christian like exapologist. And I appreciate the compassion in your own heart that seeks to find what's most compassionate in the Bible, even in the case of divine instructions concerning the biblical institution of slavery.

You wrote for instance, that according to biblical slavery

"1. Slaves had to be let go after six years. (Exodus 21:2)"

But the verse only applies to "Hebrew" slaves, not to all slaves. All non-Hebrew slaves were "everlasting slaves."

Furthermore if you read further, you can see that the freedom clause only applied to male Hebrew slaves, not female ones, the latter of which remained the property of their master when the male slave left. In fact if the female slave gave birth, her children also remained the property of their master. They were not offered their freedom. [See verses below]

Protestant theologians of the Southern Baptist, Southern Methodist, and Southern Presbyterians churches defended slavery via some pretty explicit passages. And their exegesis is still a challenge today. Some of the points those gentlemen raised prior to the Civil War, were these:

How long must a person remain enslaved? Genesis, chapter nine, says that Noah laid a curse on one of his sons’ sons making him [and his children’s children] “a slave of slaves... forever.” While Leviticus 25:44-46, says, “You may acquire male and female slaves from the nations that are around you. Then too, out of the sons of the sojourners who live as aliens among you... they also may become your possession. You may even bequeath them to your sons after you, to inherit as a possession forever [i.e., the slave’s children would be born into slavery along with their children’s children, forever].”

Therefore, slaves acquired from “foreign” nations could be treated as “possessions... forever;” also, enemies taken in war.

Moreover, the second Psalm in the Bible (which scholars believe was sung at the coronation of Hebrew kings) proclaims, “Ask of me [the Lord], and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance [as slaves], and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”

There were as you mentioned a few exceptions to “everlasting slavery.” If the slave was a Hebrew owned by a fellow Hebrew the master allegedly had to offer him his freedom after “six years.” Though there is not a single penalty mentioned in the Bible should the master detain his slave longer than that period or refuse to offer him his freedom. Neither does such an offer appear to apply to female slaves. Furthermore, if a Hebrew slave chose to remain with his master after being offered his freedom, then the “Lord” told his people to “bore holes in the ears” of that slave to mark him as his master’s possession “forever.” So you had better speak up clearly and without hesitation the first time your master offered you your freedom because there was no Biblical provision for changing your mind at a later date. Complicating such decisions was the fact that masters often gave their slaves wives so they could produce children, yet the wife and children remained the master’s “possessions.” (Exodus 21:4-6)

The Bible also apparently allowed for a creditor to enslave his debtor or his debtor’s children for the redemption of the debt (2 Kings 4:1); and children could be sold into slavery by their parents (Exodus 21:7; Isaiah 50:1). So sayeth “the word of the Lord.”

How much punishment could a master employ to discipline their slaves and ensure their obedience? The Bible tells us that a master may beat his slave within an inch of the slave’s life or within “a day or two” of their life: “If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives a day or two (before dying), no vengeance shall be taken; for the slave is his master’s money.” (Ex. 21:20-21) In line with such pearls of wisdom an early Christian Council, The Council of Elvira (c. 305), prescribed that any Christian mistress who beat her slave to death without premeditation was merely to be punished with five years of penance. 1 Peter 2:18-20 teaches that the Christian who is a slave should “patiently endure” even harsh unjust punishments in order to “find favor with God.”

The Bible says that all the patriarchs had slaves. Abraham, “the friend of God,” and “the father of the faithful,” bought slaves from Haran (Gen. 12:50), included them in his property list (Gen. 12:16, 24:35-36), and willed them to his son Isaac (Gen. 26:13-14). What is more, Scripture says God blessed Abraham by multiplying his slaves (Gen. 24:355). In Abraham’s household Sarah was set over the slave, Hagar. After Hagar ran away the angel told her, “return to your mistress and submit to her.” (Gen. 16:9)

The Bible even depicts the “Lord” making his own ministers slaveholders. Numbers, chapter 31, says that the Hebrews slew all the Midianites with the exception of Midianite female virgins whom the Hebrews “kept for themselves...Now the booty that remained from the spoil, which the [Hebrew] men of war had plundered included...16,000 human beings [i.e., the female virgins] from whom the Lord’s tribute was 32 persons. And Moses gave the tribute which was the Lord’s offering to Eleazar the priest, just as the Lord had commanded Moses...And from the sons of Israel’s half, Moses took one out of every fifty, both of man [i.e., the female virgins] and animals, and gave them to the Levites [the priestly tribe]...just as the Lord had commanded Moses.”

At God’s command Joshua took slaves (Josh 9:23), as did David (1 Kings 8:2,6) and Solomon (1 Kings 9:20-21). Likewise, Job whom the Bible calls “blameless and upright,” was “a great slaveholder” (Job 1:15-17; 3:19; 4:18; 7:2; 31:13; 42:8)...Slavery is twice mentioned in the ten commandments (the 4th and 10th), but not as a sin. [“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife, or his male slave, or his female slave.” Exodus 20:17]

Let’s sum up.According to the Bible, anyone who has enough money to buy another human being is “worthy of all honor” (1 Tim. 6:1) in the eyes of the one who has been purchased. Secondly, slaves should seek to fulfill the “will of God” by obediently serving their masters (Eph. 6:5-6). And thirdly, slaves who endured “suffering” (including “unjust suffering”) were “acceptable of God” (1 Peter 2:18-20). So if slaves do not find their masters “worthy of all honor,” but “disobey” their masters, and refuse to “endure sufferings” imposed by their masters, such behavior displeases not only man, but God as well. Even Jesus, in his parables, took for granted that a master had the right to discipline his disobedient slaves: “The slave who knew his master’s will, but did not do it, was beaten with many stripes.” (Luke 12:47)

Every book in the Bible takes the existence of slavery for granted from Genesis to Revelation. Revelation 6:15; 13:16 & 19:18 take for granted the existence of “free men” and “slaves” (verse 18:13 even takes for granted the existence of both “slaves” and “chariots,” which is odd for a book some believe to be a “vision of the future”). At any rate, it is far from clear that the Bible is “against slavery.” And that’s putting it mildly.

Anonymous said...

Vic, usually I don't come out this forceful, but when it comes to the brutal slavery in the South that was justified from the Bible I have had enough. Have you ever read Frederick Douglass' life narrative? Have you?

As intelligent as you are, can you not see what it would be like to be a slave in the south, and to be told that your Christian master doesn't properly apply the Bible to his world? Can you not see what it would be like?

"Oh, my Christian master separated me and my family and beats me into submission, denying me any rights whatsoever, but the Bible is still good and true. He just misunderstands."

Wouldn't you at least be intelligent enough to ask why God did not condemn slavery in no uncertain terms, if he authored the Bible?...and say it often enough that no one could misunderstand, just like he purportedly did with murder and rape?

I just don't get you at all on this.

Nothing can exonorate your God for failing so miserably on the greatest moral issue in Amercain history...nothing.

On this issue alone, you should abandon your faith. The problem is that there are so many other issues besides this that is baffles me why a thinking person like yourself claims to believe in the God of the Bible.


The whole attempt to justify the differences between the slavery in the Bible and in the slavery in the South just makes me sick.

Sorry, it just does not sit well, no matter what you say, with what a PERFECTLY GOOD God would do. I am better than your God, and according to you I am a miserable sinner deserving of hell (however conceived).

Again, I am better than your God, and I can prove this. I can prove it. I would have never allowed any human being to misunderstand that slavery is a complete abomination.

So, do you really believe a perfectly good God exists? On this point I think a believer must indeed sacrifice his intellect, as Ignatius Loyola had written.

You have sacrificed your intellect. Be gone with it then, but no longer talk to me about how reasonable you faith is. You no longer have that right.

Sorry, but on this topic I get angry. It is complete and utter foolishness to continue believing in the face of this problem.

You might as well write your own Scriptures and tell people it's from God, or believe in Zeus, Apollo or Thor. Such a religion has just the same basis once one sacrifices his or her intellect, like you have just done.

Why do smart people believe absolutely stupid things? I have an answer. They believe based in when and where they were born. Smart people are just more skilled at defending ideas they arrived at because of stupid reasons.

Sorry. But this was a camel's straw for me. It broke my back and it broke my heart. I can no longer sit by while absolute stupidity is paraded under the mask of education and intelligence. Someone has to tell the King he has no clothes one.

You're naked.

Anonymous said...


First, you say that it does not matter what the difference is between American and Ancient slavery it is still immoral. I do not think that necessarily follows, what if slavery was set up in order to provide for the poor who would have been subject to the harshness of society of that time?

Second, you say that you are not "mudslinging", however you say that I "endorsed" this social order. Would I endorse slavery now? No, but if I lived in 1000 B.C. and my family and I were starving I might have a different take on the matter; since often times slaves became part of the family and the slave had more protection than the average run of the mill impoverished person.

3. Terms like slavery and property are aporetic, or slippery when it comes to trans historical definitions. It is not as if you can abstract the practice from certian New World slaveries and transplant them back on to the ancient world.

exapologist said...


Re: 1: You misconstrued my point. My claim is not a merely verbal one: I'm not claiming that anything that is (or could be) labelled 'slavery' is immoral -- as though I would be against a community-wide practice of loving one's neighbor as oneself if it were labelled 'slavery'. Rather, I'm making the substantive claim that *the sorts of practices and laws governing OT slavery* are immoral.

Let me be as explicit as I can about the claim I'm making, to ensure any further room for ambiguity. Return to the Exodus 21:20-21 passage. It allows for beating a person nearly to death (and it doesn't treat it as murder if the slave dies a few days later) as legally and morally permissible, on the grounds that the slave is the owner's "money". Now my claim is that this OT-permitted practice is immoral -- indeed, wicked.

Re: 2: Again, the claim you attributed to me was not the one I made. I wasn't claiming that you endorse, or would endorse, the OT-version of slavery *today*; rather, my claim was that you endorse it as a permissible practice *for the ancient Hebrews* to inflict on their "money" -- you're claiming that what they did was within the bounds of morality and just law. I'm claiming that *that* is utterly morally despicable. And I do not think that calling someone on immorality (at least in the way that I'm doing it here) is an instance of mudslinging, but rather my moral obligation.

Re:3: *of course*. But I'm not doing that. Rather, again, I'm referring to a specific regulation and practice of the OT (the one referred to in Exodus 21:20-21), and saying that *that* is immoral, no matter where or when.

Again, return to the Exodus 21:20-21 passage. It allows for beating a person nearly to death (and it doesn't treat it as murder if the slave dies a few days later) as legally and morally permissible, on the grounds that the slave is the owner's "money". Now my claim is that *this* OT-permitted practice is immoral -- indeed, wicked. Do *you*?

exapologist said...

whoops! Under "Re:1", second paragraph, first line. It should've read "...so as to *prevent* any further misunderstanding.

Mr. B said...

Regarding slaves as "property" or "money" (I believe the actual Hebrew means "silver") - Glenn Miller's lengthy discourse on the issue brings up the idea that this passage means that if a slave lives (by the way, I have no idea what exapologist is talking about, since 'amad seems to support the NIV and most other recent translations, besides the fact that the KJV isn't all that reliable a translation, much to the dismay of KJV-onlyers), then the "owner" is already taking a loss because of decreased productivity. In that sense, a slave is the "silver" of the 'owner' - he (or she) is worth money for the work he is able to do, and injuring a slave doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

I don't really care to respond to everything, but the comments have been pretty disappointing in general.

Anonymous said...

"I don't really care to respond to everything, but the comments have been pretty disappointing in general."

Hehe, you think? When we have such stellar arguments as, "Southern slave owners used the Bible to support slavery; therefore, the Bible condones this form of slavery"? :\

exapologist said...

What's disappointing here, surely, is the amount of gnat-straining going on for the sake of utterly disgusting moral practices (presumably to save the doctrine of inerrancy, but I can't be sure on the basis of what's been said so far). If you can't bring yourself to see that it's wrong to beat a person half to death, then it's hard not for others to stare with incredulity and revulsion.

Mr. B said...

exapologist, part of the disappointment I expressed was in the fact that Ed reposted virtually the same thing that he posted on the original blog entry, which (I shouldn't have to tell you) was entirely unnecessary unless one assumes that he was just trying to persuade by the blunt force of a repetitive argument (and I'm trying to be charitable and assume otherwise, but the circumstances make it difficult).

As for your comments, I will just say that I don't condone beating someone half to death, a quarter to death, or even the whole way, and frankly, I don't think the Bible does, either, especially when you consider the *gasp* context - the passage is about personal injury. The verses directly before talk about what happens if two free Hebrews were to scuffle and one was injured. Note that the assailant was not punished if the victim could get up but instead had to pay for lost wages...hmm, what does that sound like? The case was the same for the slave owner except that instead of paying for lost wages, he would personally be accepting the loss. There is a direct parallel, but instead, you decide to look only at verses 20 and 21 of Exodus 21 to justify your view of Biblical morality as "repugnant." That's what I find disappointing.

exapologist said...


I think I would very much like to hear a careful response to Ed's comment, if you don't mind. Or if you don't have time for that, perhaps you could at least point me to the relevant literature.

Re: your reply to my worries about the Exodus 21:20-21 passage (which, BTW, is barely the tip of the iceberg, but I thought it was as good a place to start as any): I've heard these sorts of replies before, but I don't see how they resolve the problem. So, for example, how is the slave recompensed for being severely beaten? Also, why is an omnipotent, omniscient being constrained by contingent factors with respect to the sorts of laws he hands down? Why didn't he providentially order history so that such issues as slavery (in whavever form you like) never occured? Whether the OT laws are *better* than those of surrounding cultures is irrelevant, if they nonetheless fall below reasonable moral standards (which they clearly seem to do).

exapologist said...

A couple other quick points:

1. Your link to the hebrew word doesn't help your case. The word in context can mean "endure" or "stand". The relevant word in need of translation to settle the matter must therefore be the one that's alternatively translated (depending on the version) "for" and "after" -- if indeed there is a distinct word here. The NAS is widely considered a closer, more literal translation than the NIV, and it reads, "If, however, he *survives* a day or two...", which supports my point; not yours.

2. I thought it was bizarre that you attributed to me an intentional avoidance of the surrounding passage, so I went back to see how you could've thought that. Re-reading Exodus 21 (the whole chapter), I don't see the parallel you (and Miller) want to see between 20-21 and verses that immediately precede them. The relevant subsection of the chapter is just a list of assorted personal injuries, and the prescribed actions to be taken (or refrained from). Most importantly for present purposes, unlike the preceding verses, there is no hint that the slave assaulted the slave owner. If the slave is beaten to the point that he survives a day or two (or even, to be generous, that he or she lives on to enjoy a healthy life), the slave is not compensated for being beaten. This is of course unjust in the extreme.

Mr. B said...

ex (I dislike Internet pseudonyms - so impersonal): I hate doing this in the comments of someone else's blog, so my reply will be as brief as possible (which may not be that brief at all).

So, for example, how is the slave recompensed for being severely beaten?
This was accounted for, believe it or not; from the same chapter: 26 “If a man hits his male or female slave in the eye and the eye is blinded, he must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. 27 And if a man knocks out the tooth of his male or female slave, he must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth.

I take this to follow from the previous passage ("But if there is further injury, the punishment must match the injury: a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth...", etc.) that slaves obviously had some rights that were shared by free people of the culture.

A few more points:

The relevant subsection of the chapter is just a list of assorted personal injuries, and the prescribed actions to be taken (or refrained from).
Untrue, in the sense that chapter 21 is not about "prescribed actions" for the individual but prescribed consequences for actions. In that sense, you could that it prescribed actions to refrain from, but it would be the same way in which I would suggest the prescribed action that you not look me in the eye because I might be tempted to punch you in the face.

Most importantly for present purposes, unlike the preceding verses, there is no hint that the slave assaulted the slave owner.
There is actually no hint that the victim of the previous scenario assaulted the other. From the NASB (since you brought it up):
18 If men have a quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or with his fist, and he does not die but remains in bed, 19 if he gets up and walks around outside on his staff, then he who struck him shall go unpunished; he shall only pay for his loss of time, and shall take care of him until he is completely healed.

Only one man strikes the other; there is no mention of anything but a "quarrel" - a verbal dispute. I will also bring out (again) the parallel: the one who strikes the other has to pay for lost wages, and the slave owner also pays for lost wages, just by taking the loss of productivity. I don't understand how I could make this connection more obvious given the proximity of the two scenarios.

Last thing: I think the Hebrew is somewhat ambiguous here (and I am admittedly not a scholar), but the juxtaposition of the two verses with two outcomes doesn't make much sense if you assume that the first results in death (whether this is immediate or not seems unclear; it is just "at the hand" of, i.e. caused by, the slave owner) and the second results in death after a day or two. The passage is clear that killing a man is grounds for execution - that you haven't mentioned the possible moral implications of this surprises me - and this would be a strange deviation from the other pairings, which involve death and injury less than death.

That's all I want to say here; if you'd care to discuss it more, you can reach me over at my personal blog.

Victor Reppert said...

I don't actually endorse the defense of these passages, nor do I defend that moral inerrancy of the Old Testament. I was just interested in generating discussion on these matters.

The moral understanding of the Hebrew people developed over time.

John: The "all or nothing" statements about the Bible are statements I have read from fundamentalists all my life. You believe that statements in Scripture are true, so you are a perfect counterexample to your own claim.

Christ said that God permitted there to be unjust elements in the Law of Moses as a concession to human hard-hearted wickedness. Why can't the slavery passages be explained in the same way.

J. Clark said...

Reading "out of context" as well as reading "anachronistically" have led many a man/woman to self-righteous atheism. Preaching "out of context" and "anachronistically" have led many a man/woman to self-righteous religion. They are the different side of the same coin.

Anonymous said...

I was just interested in generating discussion on these matters.

Okay, but for some reason I just snapped when I saw it. Surely there are things you would not want to generate discussion about, correct? Like whether or not blacks and females are inferior? There must be some leanings in the direction of the discussion you wish to engage, otherwise you wouldn't do it.

And now your question is why your God allowed the ethical standards to evolve so slowly when he could've easily condemned slavery much earlier.


Victor Reppert said...

dobI'd like to better understand the relevant passages of the Scriptures, and get some exegetical feedback.

On the other hand, I can't see condemning slavery across the board without some idea that individual persons qua individual persons are intrinsically worthy of respect. That seems to come naturally to us Americans, post-civil-rights movement, but it is not self-evident to humans as such. Historically, I think this was drawn out as a consequence of the idea that all persons are precious in the eyes of God because Christ died for them. You seem to assume that we would have been quicker to catch on if we had been atheists, but if atheism is true then slavery can be justified on the basis of the idea that one should use the advantages evolution gives you to help you survive and pass on your genes. Darwin, remember, seemed to think blacks were inferior. What is the secular argument against slavery? That it violates the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number because the pain of the slaves outweighs the pleasure of the masters?

Anonymous said...

We've gone over this territory before, Vic, but you seem to think atheists have no ultimate foundation for morality, as if we have no basis for arguing against slavery, or something. In any case, I don't believe YOU have a morally superior high ground to talk. We're all in the same boat.

Anonymous said...

Slavery was a practice in Africa before Americans came along. I'm quite certain the Africans were not Christians.

The whole encompassing/global message from God to mankind is that of God's salvation (from the beginning to the end of scripture and history) - His rescue of a captive humanity. The salvation/slave/captive message is the forest, not the trees.

While there are those who debate the lack of a pebble, the mountain is sitting right behind them.

Unfortunately, spiritual light does not seem to travel at the same speed as actual light as we humans make for poor conduction. But afterall, God loves us because we are weak and helpless not inspite of our weaknesses and helplessness.


Victor Reppert said...

If we're all in the same boat, we might still all be up the creek without a paddle, unable to give a convincing refutation to the enemies of morality.

Thin-ice said...

"But afterall, God loves us because we are weak and helpless..."

But he only loves us if we believe correctly. A conditional love if there ever was one . . .

rohme said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
rohme said...

I believe you cannot argue in moral terms that latter forms of slavery are different from older forms of domination. Slavery is slavery and it is disingenuous to speak of 'more humane' slavery because slavery in principal could be argued as a dehumanizing practice and immoral.

This lack of disapproval toward people owning other people is enough to upset those who are not compelled to ratiocinate slavery in defense of religion. Natural rights and legal rights in the form of social contracts come from the Age of Enlightenment and are at odds with the Christian ethic of slavery.

The correct Christian ethical stance on slavery should follow Peter 2:18-19 "Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God."

Nietzsche's "God is dead, and we killed him" aphorizes humans destroyed the social bonds that made them under God. By accepting secularized principles such as liberty and political egalitarianism the Christian worldview was annihilated! Satan is certainly within the notion of freedom.

So that you cannot hide behind a historical relativist reading of slavery, I will put it in morally objective terms: is slavery right or wrong?