So let’s tell a story.
There as a family of immigrants that had migrated from their home to a new country. Like most immigrants, they were desperate. There was a famine in their homeland and they faced a choice of watching their wealth vanish and eventual starvation or emigrating to a new country that had plenty to spare.
It helped that one of their own had already migrated there under worse circumstances, but had made it. He was rich, he was powerful. He arranged for his family to live in a good land for them. They were ranchers by trade and he gave them a parcel of land where their herds could graze freely and they wouldn’t be bothered or subject to any of the locals giving them a hard time for it or for their different cultural customs and religious practices.
Eventually, however, local prejudices won out. Hundreds of years later, the ruler of this new country began to see their descendants as a threat to his government. So he passed an edict sending these people into forced labor camps. Their lives were hard now. They worked hard. They were fed and housed, but provided little else and certainly had no civil rights to speak of. So when the ruler began to be worried about another rebellion, he passed another edict. Only female children could live. Male children would be executed by his soldiers. Families that tried to hide male children would be subject to punishment as well. It was a nightmare. So they prayed to their God, and lo and behold, God heard them. Okay, it did take 80 more years of living under this sadistic regime where the blood of their male children continued to flow daily before the appointed deliverer appeared, but in the end, he did appear and God unleashed judgment upon this nation, culminating in a rather karmic retribution for the Egyptians as all of their first born were slain, their nation was devastated, and their Pharaoh and army destroyed.
Now a free people, they travel to Mt. Sinai under Moses’ leadership and Moses goes up the mountain to forge a covenant with God and receive the law of God.
So leading a group of former slaves and victims of infanticide, this might have been a pretty good time for God to say, “Hey, remember that horrific moral evil inflicted upon you for 400 years by the Egyptians? Yeah… don’t ever do that to anyone else.”
So what happened:
You’ve probably seen this meme floating around the internet. One of the reasons why it proliferates amongst non-Christians and irritates conservative Christians is because it pokes at an uncomfortable truth. It does so in an overly simplistic trite fashion, but it reveals a tension for biblical literalists that must be answered or explained away, because most people in our modern times view slavery (correctly) as a grave moral wrong.
The first mention of slavery in the bible would be Abraham’s servant. Followed by the story of Joseph who was sold by his brothers to slave traders. It’s presented simply as a fact of life in the culture and world in which the patriarchs lived and the biblical stance is neutral as it is about other facts of ancient society (such as polygamy.)
Following our story at the start of this post, in Exodus 21, in the Mosaic Law which we’re told was given to Moses by God, God lays out the rules for the practice of slavery amongst His chosen people. And, as mentioned in the meme, the first rule isn’t “Don’t do it.”
So right away we have tension, don’t we? That isn’t what we would expect from a perfectly moral God who could see the future and the abuses that would follow from owning people as property. Abuses, mind you, that had just reportedly happened to the Jews, including infanticide.
But, you know, maybe the rules will at least make the concept of ‘biblical’ slavery tolerable? So, let’s examine them. Exodus 21 begins the rules on how God reportedly wants you to conduct yourself when you own people.
2 “If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything.
So far, so good, right? I mean, it’s not ideal. But it’s basically indentured servitude, right? I mean, you’re still someone’s property, but only for six years. Leviticus 25:39-42 expands on this:
39 “‘If any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to you, do not make them work as slaves. 40 They are to be treated as hired workers or temporary residents among you; they are to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. 41 Then they and their children are to be released, and they will go back to their own clans and to the property of their ancestors. 42 Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. 43 Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God.
Okay, uh, so we have some contradictions here. In Exodus, the Jewish male is only supposed to serve 6 years and then is free to go. (The rules were different for Jewish women and non-Jews, which we’ll get to below.) In Leviticus, they’re to serve until the year of Jubilee, which occurred every 50 years.
Further complicating the matter is a passage in Jeremiah 34:
Thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel: I made a covenant with your fathers in the day that I brought them forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, saying: “At the end of seven years ye shall let go every man his brother that is a Hebrew, that hath been sold unto thee, and hath served thee six years, thou shalt let him go free from thee”; but your fathers hearkened not unto Me, neither inclined their ear.” (Jeremiah 34:13–14)
So this goes with the idea that Jewish male slaves were to be set free every seventh year, but this law was never enforced and Jewish male slaves were kept in bondage by their brothers in perpetuity. Knowing this eventual outcome, it’s looking less than justifiable that slavery wasn’t simply prohibited. I mean, we can call it indentured servitude for Jewish men, but if they were never released, it really is slavery.
Add to that, that there were loopholes in Exodus 21 in which you could force a Hebrew male slave to remain a slave:
3 If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free.
5 “But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ 6 then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.
So either the male slave would choose to abandon his wife and children for his freedom, or sign away the rest of his life to his former master and serve him forever. Rather than impress upon the master the loss of ‘his property’ in the form of the slave’s wife and children, the law facilitates the breakup of a family or continued slavery.
Okay… what about women?
7 “If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. 8 If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself, he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. 9 If he selects her for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. 10 If he marries another woman, he must not deprive the first one of her food, clothing and marital rights. 11 If he does not provide her with these three things, she is to go free, without any payment of money.
According to this and the previous passage, Jewish women were to remain in bondage and were not subject to the requirement that they be freed after the sixth year.
Contradicting this, is Deuteronomy 15:12, which does stipulate that a Hebrew woman should be freed after six years and that all freed slaves should receive recompense from their masters in the form of animals and produce. (No wonder few, if any, of the masters followed through on this command.)
In this passage in Exodus, it seems implied that the master is purchasing a girl or young woman for the purpose of sexual congress whether as a wife or concubine. The girl, of course, not having any say or consent in the matter. She is property transferred from her father to her new master. If she displeases her master, she can be bought out of slavery by a blood relative. If she’s purchased for a son in the family, she’s elevated to the status of a daughter under the law. And if her master neglects her after marrying someone else, he still has to provide for her or she’s free to go.
16 “Anyone who kidnaps someone is to be put to death, whether the victim has been sold or is still in the kidnapper’s possession.
Okay, I think this is really our first positive thing we can say about the passage thus far. It prohibits kidnapping people and selling them into slavery. This prohibition only applies to Jews, however… and, uh… really wasn’t enforced, as we see in Judges 21, wherein the Jewish tribes are described as massacring a city in Israel for failing to send troops to battle and taking the young (read preteen mostly) virgins and giving them to the tribe of Benjamin and then conspiring to kidnap young women (preteens) from another town as they’re celebrating a festival.
And, of course, there is the story of the Midianites in Numbers 31 where the Jewish army destroys every man, woman, male child, old man, infants, but saves the virgin girls (preteens) and distributes them amongst the army as, well… sex slaves essentially. I guess they’d end up as concubines under the law, but let’s call a spade a spade. They were spared to be used for sex by the soldiers they were given to.
This isn’t really making biblical slavery seem all that benign after all, is it?
20 “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, 21 but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.
Okay, you can beat your slaves, but you can’t kill them. Okay, you can kill them, they just have to LINGER a day or two first and then you get away with it because they are YOUR PROPERTY. If you beat a free man to death, you get the death penalty, but a slave? Well, if he hangs on a day or two, his life doesn’t matter quite as much.
So a slave’s life is of less value than that of a free man.
26 “An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. 27 And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth.
Also, you can beat your slaves. Just make sure not to maim them permanently, or you’ll lose their free labor.
And as for non-Jews, well, biblical slavery was exactly the same except there was no pretense about letting you go after six years. Leviticus 25:44:
“‘Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. 45 You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. 46 You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.
As a non-Jewish slave you were property as were your children, in perpetuity. Even the Year of Jubilee wouldn’t free you (not that it freed any of your fellow slaves who were Jewish, but you know, at least they ostensibly had the law on their side. You didn’t.)
And, whether we like it or not, this country had a long tradition of using a literalist interpretation of the bible in defense of slavery. Slavery was right there in the law and Christians were told by Paul to be subject to their masters. (Side note, the Southern Baptist Convention was formed when a schism developed over whether a slave owners should be appointed as ministers.) Reading some of the primary sources from that time it was the abolitionists who appealed to the higher biblical ideals of justice and equality of all men as opposed to the literal law in Exodus.
In conclusion, to me, at least, that both the idea of biblical slavery and its practice are full of the same moral failings and evils as any other form of slavery: some people are taken advantage of, foreigners could be seized as spoils of war and impressed into servitude, women could be sold without their consent, families could be broken up, the laws were ignored or perverted, and slaves were deemed property first and human beings second.
And I find that it is far easier to view these practices as a product of a time when every nation practiced slavery and that these laws reflected that culture and were not reflective of God or Christ.