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Slaves and Slavery
By Richard Gunther
I was reading about a great evangelist when I came across these words:
“If I had lived a hundred or so years ago, I would probably have defended
slavery from the Scriptures”. My first response was to admire his
honesty, because, although he was a man with many years of Bible study under his
belt, he was willing to risk a lot of criticism. However, he did not believe, when
he said these words, that slavery was either Christian or supported by
Scripture, but he was admitting something which many Christians would have
confidently stated some 150 years ago. In those days it was generally believed
that there was nothing wrong with a man owning slaves. Was this because slavery
was different then, and that only today has it somehow become morally offensive?
Or perhaps the influence of Christianity has exposed it as sinful – this
latter argument falls flat because it was “in the Name of God” that many
slaves were conscripted. Christianity once made it acceptable.
This is shameful stuff to admit. Even worse, the ‘Christian’
plantation owners on some farms were shown up by the beautiful Christianity
which flourished amongst their own slaves.
Logically, if slavery is acceptable to the God of the Christians, then
there must be something faulty about God. One century He allows slavery, and the
next he condemns it? His detractors seem quite justified in their accusations.
But first we need to define what we mean when we say ‘slave’ and
A slave is someone who becomes property, like a bed or a house. A
slave has no rights, no constitution, and no lawyers to defend him (or her). A
slave may be treated in any way the Master decides, even to the point of
starvation and death, without redress.
A servant on the other hand, is an employee, who trades his skills
or production for money and/or other benefits. A servant has the same legal
rights as the Master and can even withhold his services if he so decides.
We must not confuse ‘slave’ with ‘servant’. In the same way we
must not confuse love with lust, rest with laziness, hunger with starvation,
tiredness with exhaustion or frugality with miserliness.
In the Old Testament, there were always both slaves and servants living
at the same time in different circumstances. Some nations are known to have used
forced labour, i.e. the Egyptians, during the time of the Hebrews, and the
Chinese, as they built their Great Wall. At the same time there were also
servants, who received many benefits from those they served – food and board,
privileges, and payment. One of my
relatives, now dead, was quite used to having servants living downstairs from
her, and another friend of mine comes from a country where servants are the
usual workers in wealthy homes. So let us be very careful about our use of the
two words, because they are both very different in scope and meaning.
“If you buy a Hebrew servant, he shall serve six years, and in the
seventh he shall go out free and pay nothing . . . if he comes in married, he
shall go out with his wife . . . if he says “I love my master . . . his master
shall pierce his ear . . . and he shall serve him for ever.”
Obviously, if a servant asks for his ear to be pierced, and requests that
he serve his master for the rest of his life, there must be some blessing in
being a servant in this case. The master, apparently, is a good man (or woman),
and the conditions are so conducive to a happy life that the servant says “I love
my master” and commits his life to service to the same.
If an Israelite kept the Mosaic Law it, a servant would be in good stead
in that obedient person’s service. This is very important to notice. A servant
willingly handing over his life to service to another man – becoming a willing
slave. The whole contract based on love and free choice. There is no force at
work here, apart from love, with trust and faithfulness following close behind.
This could hardly be called slavery – no slave would want a hole
in his or her ear, and no slave would seek the prospect of a whole
life’s work for another man.
“If one of your brethren who dwells by you becomes poor, and sells
himself to you, you shall not compel him to serve as a slave.”
In this case a person, through poverty, needs to raise some money, so he
or she works for wages. In this situation the Israelite master is commanded not
to make the servant into a slave – despite the opportunity to exploit the
hopeless person’s predicament – squeeze blood from a stone so to speak. The
Israelite master is not allowed to degrade the poor person’s self-esteem
further by making him into a slave, that is, by taking away all rights from him.
When Unions were being organised in this country (NZ) I remember hearing
some of the feelings being expressed by some of the workers: “They won’t
listen to us as individuals, so we will meet our bosses en masse. They
will listen to us when we unite! They won’t trample on us when we rise up
The workers are often forgotten, or treated as if they were
inconsequential. During the Industrial Revolution appalling conditions prevailed
for the workers – some lived in drainage ditches under the road and slept on
boards stretched over the water – simply because the managers of the mills had
no regard for their welfare. God hates oppression of the poor and helpless, so
we find many of the Mosaic laws aimed at preventing the degradation of human
life. God allowed servanthood, but did not approve of slavery.
In this law, God commanded that the death penalty would follow for
kidnapping: “If a man is found kidnapping (stealing) any of his brethren . . .
and mistreats him or sells him, then that kidnapper shall die”. See also
Ex.21:16 for much the same.
There is a tie between kidnapping and slavery. In both cases the rights
of the individual are overridden by force, in both cases the victim has no
redress – unless the law catches the kidnapper. Another interesting tie is
between kidnapping, slavery, and religious bondage. God has never required that
people serve Him as slaves, yet cults and various religions impose a slavery
principle on their followers, denying them free will or choice. On the other
hand, God loves servants, and the New Testament has many references to the
honour of being a faithful servant. Jesus, of course, was the greatest example
of Servanthood, yet he was never a slave.
This passage covers several areas in which God makes it clear that people
are expected to be responsible for what they own. In the first verse a thief, if
caught, is required to pay up to four or five times the amount stolen. In verse
3, if the thief is caught in the daylight, he is expected to make full
restitution, but if he has nothing he is to be sold as a slave. From this
context therefore, we see that slavery is considered a terrible punishment.
In the case of servants, God had a law to help them, if they were in a
time of service from which they might want to be released. God made a provision
so that every Israelite, male or female, could be redeemed at any time by
relatives. If nobody was able or willing to pay them out of service, they could
simply work and wait until the end of the sixth year, at which time the master
had to release them. “And when you send him away free from you, you shall not
let him go away from you empty-handed, you shall supply him liberally from your
flock . . . threshing floor . . . and winepress.” Deut.15:18 It was therefore
a very good thing to be a servant to an Israelite.
For women the Law of God made many wonderful provisions. It gave them
full equality with men, and possible even more than that – see Ex.21. If the
female servant married the master’s son the master had to make provision for
her at least equal to that which he would spend on a full daughter. If the
master’s son married a second wife, the servant woman was not to receive less
than the second wife. (Not that God condoned polygamy – He simply made
provision for it). And if the master failed in any of these respects, the
servant woman was allowed to leave completely free of any ties or obligations.
What happened when a Hebrew became a servant to a non-Israelite?
The servitude could be ended in two ways. One way was through the year of
Jubilee, which came around every fifty years. In that year all disposed people
were allowed to return to their land and property, and all debts were written
off. The second way was by a payment to the master sufficient to cover the
purchase price of the servant, minus the value of the service rendered up to the
day of release. (Lev. 25:47-55)
By contrast, slaves had a very different ‘deal’. They had very few,
or no rights, and the master could treat the slave as a chattel, or possession
– Lev. 25:45,46, and speak of him as his “money” – Ex.2121. But slaves
could be set free – Ex.21:26,27 and Lev.19:20. And having said this God’s
Law also made it clear that slaves were to be treated well. Provision was made
for their protection (Lev.24:17, 22, Ex.21:20). Even a minor injury was to be
compensated, such as a chipped tooth. If a master hurt his slave was
automatically allowed to go free – Ex.21:26,27. Slaves were allowed to be
circumcised (Gen.17:12) and they were allowed to eat the Passover Lamb – Ex.
12:44, and to attend religious festivals – Deut.12:12, 18, 16:11, 14, and they
were allowed to enjoy the Sabbath blessings – Ex.20:11, Deut.5:14.
From what I can discover in other books on the subject, compared to the
Babylonians, the Phoenicians, the Philistines, the Syrians, the Egyptians, the
Romans and many other nations, the treatment of servants and slaves in Israel
was dignified, humane and respectful. In fact, it is quite likely that poor or
disadvantaged people from other nations looked with envy at the servants and
slaves within Israel’s borders.
The assertion therefore, that God condones slavery has no foundation in
the Bible. He did make provisions for slaves because He loves all
people and wants to care for the weak and helpless, but this is not to be taken
as a requirement for slavery.
might add here that God also made provisions for polygamy, and divorce, not
because He approved, but because these things happened and He wanted to help
restore a situation which should not have existed in the first place)
If God required slavery, He would hardly have seen any need to
deliver His people from Egypt, or to look with compassion on any of the
oppressed through the centuries.
Also, if God condoned slavery His character would be maligned,
because He has many names which all indicate the very opposite. In the New
Testament the message of the gospel was partly to “open prison door and set
the captives free” and where servants are mentioned they are told to serve God
as free men, even though they are still servants.
One suspects that, during the time in America and Britain, when slavery
was accepted by the governments of the day, that there might have been a strong economic
reason for the practice, rather than a desire to fulfil some Biblical command.
Slaves, after all, required no wages, and their labour was very cheap to obtain,
considering some of the poor diets and housing standards they were given. People
will quite often use the Bible to support their cause if they think they can
twist it to their ideas, but they show a great reluctance to acknowledge the
Bible if it contradicts them.
Suppose, for example, how loudly the pro-abortionists would shout the chapter and verse if the Bible supported abortion?
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