Tough Questions Answered

A Christian Apologetics Blog

Does God Condone Slavery in the Old Testament? Part 1

Post Author: Bill Pratt

AfricanSlaveTradePoster Does God Condone Slavery in the Old Testament? Part 1Someone recently asked me about slavery in the Bible, and I decided it was time to take this topic on.  In order to stay focused, I want to answer a very specific question: does God support the institution of slavery in the Torah (first five books of the Old Testament)?

The Torah, also called the Law, is where God gave Israel detailed instructions about how to conduct their affairs as a nation.   How did slavery fit into the instructions God gave Israel?

Before I begin, I want to explain my source for this material.  I have relied on the Christian Thinktank.  In fact, my posts will be an attempt at compacting and summarizing the 29,000 word article written on this topic on the Thinktank.  If you would like to read the article and skip my summary, please do so, for it is a truly excellent treatment.  For those who want the summary, read on.

The first requisite step is to consider what the word slavery means.  Most of us, when we hear the word slavery, think of the institution that existed in the southern United States before the Civil War brought it to an end.   However, it turns out that the word slavery is a slippery one, for there have been many different kinds of slavery throughout world history.

Here is a quote from the Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology:

Scholars do not agree on a definition of “slavery.” The term has been used at various times for a wide range of institutions, including plantation slavery, forced labor, the drudgery of factories and sweatshops, child labor, semi-voluntary prostitution, bride-price marriage, child adoption for payment, and paid-for surrogate motherhood. Somewhere within this range, the literal meaning of “slavery” shifts into metaphorical meaning, but it is not entirely clear at what point. A similar problem arises when we look at other cultures. The reason is that the term “Slavery” is evocative rather than analytical, calling to mind a loose bundle of diagnostic features. These features are mainly derived from the most recent direct Western experience with slavery, that of the southern United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America. The present Western image of slavery has been haphazardly constructed out of the representations of that experience in nineteenth-century abolitionist literature, and later novels, textbooks, and films. . . From a global cross-cultural and historical perspective, however, New World slavery was a unique conjunction of features. . . In brief, most varieties of slavery did not exhibit the three elements that were dominant in the New World: slaves as property and commodities; their use exclusively as labor; and their lack of freedom.

What I will do in the next few posts is lay out what New World slavery was like, and then contrast that type of slavery with the kind found in the Torah.  You will discover that there are profound differences, so please come back for the rest of the series.

 Does God Condone Slavery in the Old Testament? Part 1


About The Author

Comments

  • http://makingmyway.org Robert

    Bill, I think the dichotomy you’re attempting to establish – ANE slavery was different than practiced thousands of years later – is irrelevant. An omniscient god would know how slavery would evolve, that its followers would point to past practices to justify the wholly barbaric institution it became – but said nothing to condemn the practice in unequivocal terms. No where is slavery’s basic principle, the involuntary servitude of one human to another, prohibited. When one thinks of the brutal suffering that could have been prevented with just a few words from Jesus, it beggers belief the Bible is the product of an omnibenevolent god.

    This is what must be addressed in your apologetic. Good luck.

  • Bill Pratt

    Robert,
    The argument is completely relevant to people who believe that the Old Testament promoted the kind of slavery found in the American south (which is what most people think of when they think of slavery). That type of slavery is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament Law. You may not care about that distinction, but many others do.

  • http://makingmyway.org Robert

    You may not care about that distinction, but many others do.

    What I’m suggesting is that the distinction isn’t really the “tough question” which should be answered.

    In any case, the answer to the question which titles your posts, “Does God Condone Slavery in the Old Testament?”, is an unequivocal yes.

  • http://www.toughquestionsanswered.org Darrell

    Robert,

    Your suggestion simply begs the question that what one means by the word “slavery” does not matter. I am sorry, but that is a ridiculous assumption.

    Darrell

  • http://sandwichesforsale.blogspot.com DagoodS

    Darrell, since you believe there is a “transcendent moral standard”—can you state with specificity what, precisely, the “transcendent moral standard” is? For example, is a slave considered property? Are there exceptions? When do those exceptions apply?

    Can you strike a slave? Are there exceptions and when would those exceptions apply?

    Finally (most importantly) how do I verify this is the “transcendent moral standard” when it comes to slavery?

  • http://makingmyway.org Robert

    Your suggestion simply begs the question that what one means by the word “slavery” does not matter. I am sorry, but that is a ridiculous assumption.

    Darrell, in my first post I defined slavery as “the involuntary servitude of one human to another”. If you look the word up in any dictionary, you’ll get pretty much the same definition. Bill didn’t object to this definition either.

    Was the slavery as practiced by ancient Jews (according to the Torah) different from that practiced in the American antebellum south? Yes.

    Was it still slavery? Yes.

    Why is slavery never prohibited in the Bible? That is the “tough question” I submit should be answered.

  • Bill Pratt

    Robert,
    There are a number of particular evils that the Bible does not address. I wrote previously on what Jesus’ mission on earth was and why he didn’t address every issue of his time. Please read the post.

  • Bill Pratt

    Dagoods,
    That a moral law exists is an entirely different question from knowing what the moral law is in every single instance or circumstance. It’s the difference between ontology and epistemology (the existence of something vs. how we know about something). They are two separate questions entirely. Your approach seems like the following:

    I approach a chemistry student and ask him what exactly happens when two particular elements are mixed in water, and if the student says “I don’t know” or “It depends” or anything else besides the precise answer I’m looking for, I exclaim, “Ah hah! There are no laws of chemistry! If there were, you should be able to give me the answer to every single chemical interaction I throw at you!”

    Darrell is free to follow you down the rabbit trail (maybe he wants to), but I don’t think your question has anything to do with whether a transcendent moral law exists, which is what he wrote about in his series of blog posts.

  • http://makingmyway.org Robert

    There are a number of particular evils that the Bible does not address. I wrote previously on what Jesus’ mission on earth was and why he didn’t address every issue of his time.

    Thanks Bill. I read your post. Unfortunately, it doesn’t explain why God (including Jesus) didn’t simply prohibit slavery when transmitting the moral law humans are supposed to follow, e.g., the Ten Commandments.

  • Bill Pratt

    Robert,
    This argument has no end, because why should we stop with slavery? There are probably hundreds of other specific evils that we could find that are not specifically addressed in the Bible.

    The Bible contains general principles for living a moral life from which specific guidelines can be drawn for particular actions. Why should we expect the Bible to contain admonitions against every evil we can conceive?

    Again, if you read the other post, God is specifically concerned with our heart. Once that is healed, everything else follows.

  • http://makingmyway.org Robert

    This argument has no end, because why should we stop with slavery?

    Because the Bible started the argument in the first place by prohibiting specific “evils” (e.g., homosexuality, adultery). That was my point. Your argument isn’t sound due to the fact of specific prohibitions, i.e., commandments. And it would be easy to inpart a general moral principle to address slavery. How about, “Thou shall not treat others as property”?

    But the larger problem is that God condones the institution of slavery as demonstrated by allowing His followers to practice it. And since God never spoke against it, one can’t blame his followers for continuing it, or for even thinking it was ever actually wrong.

    Makes you wonder what other things Christians currently think are moral (or immoral), but upon further reflection of Biblical “general principles” they’ll change their minds about.

  • Matt Salmon

    Robert,
    Are you saying that an all-knowing, all-good, all-powerful god would not create something which would later be used for evil? Is marriage an evil institution? Is sex, within marriage, a bad thing?

  • http://makingmyway.org Robert

    Matt, I’m saying that the followers of such a god need to explain why he would create (or condone) such an evil institution in the first place.

  • Matt Salmon

    I’m saying that everything that is evil is a distortion of what is good. The slavery that God initiated is not at all evil; your only argument that it’s evil is that Europeans twisted it for their selfish gain to exploit Africans. Is sex bad because people do it in the wrong way (outside of marriage or homosexually)? Is marriage evil because people get divorced? Absolutely not. Equivocating old testament Hebrew slavery to “New World” slavery is like saying marriage and gay marriage are the same. They are fundementally different even though one may have evolved from the other.

  • http://makingmyway.org Robert

    The slavery that God initiated is not at all evil;

    Ok…so, let’s clear. The principle that some humans can be property to others – slavery – is not intrinsically evil? As long as it’s practiced in accordance with God’s regulations?

    Bad news for Canadians, I suppose…

  • Matt Salmon

    I believe it’s similar to the way a son belongs to his father; the slave isn’t property to the exclusion of his humanity. This slavery which Bill Pratt is addressing (Hebrews enslaved to Hebrews, correct me if I’m wrong BP) is more similar to (temporary) adoption than new world slavery. The regulations of God are not as arbitrary as you portray them. As guidelines for the judges they ensure: humanity is not excluded (in fact it was “help out your brother when he falls on hard times”), family-like relations are upheld, and exploitation is avoided.

  • Berny

    Your god saw nothing wrong with slavery because your god was invented by people who saw nothing wrong with slavery.
    Using superstition to justify an evil like slavery is the height of stupidity.
    When you accept the fact that the Bible was largely written by ignorant men, most of it makes sense. It’s only when you insist on calling it the word of a wise and all knowing god that it leaves you scratching your head.

  • Bill Pratt

    Berny,
    I see many things written by ignorant men, but the Bible isn’t one of them.

  • Michail

    When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property. (Exodus 21:20-21)

    Yup slavery in the bible was really good times for slaves: you didn’t have to worry about being beaten to death, unless you could manage to hold on a day or two.

  • http://makingmyway.org Robert

    I believe it’s similar to the way a son belongs to his father; the slave isn’t property to the exclusion of his humanity.

    You “believe”? More convincing would be if you provide the scripture citations. From the ones we’ve provided (such as the one from Michail), you don’t get this view at all.

    This slavery which Bill Pratt is addressing (Hebrews enslaved to Hebrews, correct me if I’m wrong BP) is more similar to (temporary) adoption than new world slavery.

    Even if true, so what? The Bible makes clear slavery wasn’t limited to Hebrews owning Hebrews.

    Still awaiting an answer to these questions: The principle that some humans can be property to others – slavery – is not intrinsically evil? As long as it’s practiced in accordance with God’s regulations?

  • Matt

    Robert,

    “What I’m suggesting is that the distinction isn’t really the ‘tough question’ which should be answered.”

    Do you vote? Every government condones slavery of some kind. You have probably voted for some measures or at least voted for politicians who have forced service from people in some way that could be considered slavery. Prisoners are often put to work, money is taken in taxes without permission (money that they worked for, hence the slavery), people are conscripted into military service. Because many things that we see as moral or at least legitimate can be defined as slavery it is important to explain what we mean by slavery; hence Bill’s important distinction.

    “‘Thou shall not treat others as property’?”

    How about “love your neighbor as yourself”

  • Edward Cowell

    Darrell ,
    I don’t need the final word and hope you didn’t misunderstand what I meant by argument. We have opposing position, that’s all. So I won’t address our previous discussion.
    Again, I hold no ill will towards my fellow primates. I understand the journey and your necessity for mental crutch. I just hope you , and everyone that is religious ( too many types to list) , would open there mind and honestly evaluate science, the progress of our species has made. I have read and listen to Ravi Zacharias, Joyce Meyer, Charles Stanley, and have read CS Lewis Mere Christianity. Actually, there are many more but I think you get the point. I have also read a lot on science. I have a very strong Electronic and physic back ground. I can think logically and clearly , good thing or I would have been a failure at my profession.
    My only point is read everything and take in all of the arguments with a open mind.
    I won’t threaten you with eternal suffering or anything crazy like that if you continue with your position. There is no punishment with being wrong, just a unfulfilled life.
    Take Care, Ed.

  • al

    The irreconcilable contradiction between the commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself” and the Torah’s clear condoning, even regulating, the horror of slavery is clear. There is deep meaning in the “love thy neighbor” commandment in context of the special creation of humanity with a divine spark. We are to understand and respect the fact that I, nor any human being is an object – we are uniquely spiritually animated by a direct reflection of the creator. The millisecond one acts to capture, own, hurt, beat, rape, or kill someone, one has dived into deep ignorance of who we are and what we were given.

SEO Powered by Platinum SEO from Techblissonline