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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 ‘servant’.


   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.


   Exodus 21:1-11

   “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. Remarkable.

   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.


   Leviticus 25:39

   “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 together!”

   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.


   Deuteronomy 24:7

   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.


   Exodus 22:1-15

   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.

(One 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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