Answering Objections 2: the Bible Supports Slavery

Objector:

the bible supports slavery

and later on in the debate:

It also says that you may beat your slave as long ad they don’t die.

further down:

It says that you can beat your slave.. That’s what it says.

 

Response:

  1. The objector, probably unintentionally, equivocates the term slavery across two different historical contexts. Slavery in the ancient world is not equal to slavery in the nineteenth century. This mistake is understandable, considering that in school we exclusively learned about slavery in US History. The differences are numerous, but to keep it simple, a helpful comparison is to indentured servants. These were people who sold their labor for 7 year blocks of time, became “slaves”, and were released again at the end of their due time. Here are some additional ways: slavery in the ancient world was unrelated to race, whereas in the US is was almost immediately about race; a slave in the ancient world could have any job, like being a poet, a farmer, a guard, a tutor, and so on, whereas in the US slavery was restricted to manual labor. (Granted, most jobs at the time were agricultural anyways, so this is only marginally true). There are more differences than these.
  2. Does the Bible “support slavery”? For the Bible to support something, it would be necessary to find a commandment that states “You can have slaves.” Now, such a commandment is nowhere to be found.
  3. Of course, the Bible still talks about slavery without outright endorsing it. Could the Bible implicitly nod to slavery, giving sanction to the practice without making the statement “You can have slaves”? Of course it could. But these are murky waters, for now we have to intuit the intention behind every reference to slavery — even when the text itself is silent. In these cases either scenario tends to be a valid interpretation. For example, moral codes like “An eye for an eye” can be seen as giving people the right to seek vigilante retribution against their enemy, and endorsing violence as the best way to deal with violence. OR, those same moral codes can be seen as a limit that bars the offended from extracting disproportionate punishment from the offender; the code could equally be read as “AT MOST an eye, for an eye” which is an equally valid reading.
  4. More complexity comes about when we distinguish between prescriptive and descriptive discussion in the text. Do we really think that, because the Bible so much as mentions a topic, it endorses that topic? Clearly not. For example, the Bible records various people engaging in polygamy throughout the Old Testament… but does that give license to polygamy? No, because we can see the consequences of those actions (which are numerous for Solomon) and use other Biblical principles to come to a more full understanding of the general topic (like that monogamy is represented in the beginning, and in parallel at the Wedding Feast in Revelation, etc.) which have importance for how we understand that general topic.
  5. My friend Kristina Olsen points this out: “the same passage that you mentioned about the slave beatings (Exodus 21) also mentions that if a master knocks his slave’s tooth out or destroys his slave’s eye, the slave must go free. Clearly, there are strict boundaries for harm. And that passage also says the slave shall be avenged if he dies by his master’s hand (vs. 20).” So, while the Bible does not, in this particular case, denounce slavery, it does place limits on the practice that likely exceeded the limits already in place.
  6. The Bible does depict slavery in a negative light at various points. The Israelites are slaves set free from Egypt (which later becomes a rallying point during the abolition movement). Joseph is sold into slavery by his brothers (which is called “evil” in the text itself). The Israelites again become slaves during the Exile to Babylon, which is presented as being roughly the worst thing ever.
  7. An important place to look things in the Bible is also the New Testament. Most obviously we have Philemon, in which Paul requests that Philemon accept his former (runaway) slave Onesimus back into his household, not as a slave but as a freeman. This letter does not support or denounce slavery, though it was used heavily by both sides of the abolition debate in the US.
  8. If the Bible does not support or denounce slavery, then we could possibly look to history to see how Christians have used the Bible to support or denounce slavery. Now, this has exited the original discussion about the content of the Bible, but it could be helpful to examine anyway. This, too, is a jumbled mess. But I can at least point out that William Wilberforce in the UK along with almost all of the abolitionists in the US (Garrison, Douglass, Tappen, etc.) were both devout Christians and held their abolitionist perspective from a specifically Christian foundation. Consider also that abolitionism was first popularized (or, made more popular, since it was not actually “popular” until after it happened) during the Second Great Awakening and was mostly born (in the US) during the First Great Awakening. This is not a comprehensive case, but these are still good counterpoints to the claim that the Bible was always used to support slavery. See the book “America’s God” by Mark Noll for more on this.

The Bible does not “support” the nineteenth century institution of slavery with which we are all familiar. It does remain, on balance, mute regarding the legitimacy of economic bond-servitude as done in the ancient world. Particular rules are given to prevent the mistreatment of the slaves that are owned, which may or may not permit slavery, but certainly place a cap on its practice.

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