Scripture: Slavery

For some reason slavery has been coming up a lot lately. A complete coincidence based on the reading I’ve been doing and the podcasts I’ve been listening to, but interesting none the less.

Now that’s a happy slave 😉

What made me think it was worth doing a post dedicated to slavery (or more specifically, slavery in the Bible) was a forum post I found over at ‘Evolution Fairytale’. I’ve always thought people either didn’t know about Biblical slavery laws, or that they rejected it because it was Old Testament stuff. Well some of the guys over at this forum have been trying to paint Biblical slavery in a positive light, which was new to me. I thought we could take a look at these claims, compare them to what the Bible says and see what we can learn.

I’m also taking this opportunity to introduce a new segment to the blog, ‘Scripture’. In these posts we’ll explore many of the things different scriptures say and whether or not they’re true, or in this case moral. Naturally most of these posts will be focused on the Bible because Christianity is the religion I’m most familiar with and also the holy scripture I’m currently reading (up to Joshua!). Eventually though I’ll start reading through the Quran, some Buddhist scriptures and anything else I can find, and then we can broaden these ‘Scripture’ posts to look at some other religions.

Let’s start by looking at some of the quotes from the Evolution Fairytale forum.

“I have heard people ignorantly claiming that the Bible supports slavery, as if God Himself condones oppressive, abusive slavery. Slavery is not synonymous with oppression and abuse. In Biblical times, slavery was more like indentured servitude, where people were taken care of (food, clothes, shelter, and still allowed to have families) in exchange for labor instead of getting a salary. So the argument these people are making is ignorant of vital details, particularly what God allows and what He does not allow in the Bible.”

The section I’ve bolded is technically true. Slavery doesn’t immediately mean abuse. Certainly some slaves would have worked for basic necessities such as food and shelter, rather than money and there’s really nothing wrong with that. But what about what the laws say as to what is allowed and not? We’ll return to this in a bit when we open up our Bibles.

“yeah after a few years they could choose if they want to leave or stay with their boss a lot of them choosed stay because they had everything there”

The man with the terrible grammar is right! People could choose to leave after 6 years servitude, and often people chose to stay. But the real question is why they chose to stay. Again, get that Bible ready. We’ll be finding out the why shortly.

“That is true. Still to say that the way the Bible deals with slavery is evil, because it attempts to give guidelines and does not condemn it outright is to say “there can be no mutually beneficial case of slavery, it is all evil”. The conclusion is flawed because it is based on a flawed premise.”

This is absolutely right. Slavery in and of itself isn’t evil. What makes it a bad practice is…well the way it’s practiced.

“So almost like a live-in farm hand”

Wow, this one makes it sound like being a slave was pretty much a good thing! But…was it? Okay, grab your Bibles and let’s find out.

First off here’s a list of the above claims to compare the Bible with.

  1. God does not condone oppressive or abusive slavery.
  2. Slaves were paid in material goods such as clothes, food and shelter instead of a salary.
  3. Slaves could leave after a few years.
  4. Many slaves chose to continue being slaves due to good conditions.
  5. Slaves were essentially treated as farm-hands.

Now, most of the laws of slavery are to be found in the Old Testament, and that’s where we’ll put our focus today. Please note though, that the New Testament also has some details on slavery and not all of it is good. I’d encourage people to do further reading, particularly of the New Testament, but so far I’m still reading the Old and I want to focus on the parts I have personally read.

For those who don’t know, Leviticus and Deuteronomy are really heavy on the law, however we’ll start by turning to Exodus 21:2.  If you don’t have a Bible on you I’d recommend BibleGateway.com, which is where this text is copied from.

“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. 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.”

Wow, that actually sounds quite reasonable. Hebrew slaves can only serve for six years at a time, and when they leave they can take their wife with them. A later passage in Leviticus (we’ll get to it) says he can also takes his kids with him! It sounds like the guys over at Evolution Fairytale are right, but let’s keep reading.

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.”

Let’s be honest, this is a bit of a grey area. The owner has paid for the servitude of the woman, so he should still get his monies worth even if the husband leaves, right? The children should probably be set free considering they were never paid for, however this is a time when woman were caretakers, not men, so that’s kind of understandable. Myabe if this were re-written for a modern time the man could take the kids? Let’s keep reading.

This good people, is an awl.

“But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges.[a]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.”

Ah, and now we get to the crux of the issue. All these laws sound reasonable, but in reality this is blackmail. What do you to with a slave that can go free? Give him a woman so he’ll want to stay. And it’s not like the man can pay for the possession of his wife and kids. He’s been a slave for the past 6 years, he doesn’t have any money.

At this time men could take multiple wives, so just because he became a slave with a wife doesn’t mean the owner couldn’t present him with another. I wouldn’t go as far to say this system was deliberately set up to trap slaves forever, but holding woman and children hostage to blackmail a man into slavery for life, that’s immoral.

The other thing is that the slave is marked by piercing his ear with an awl. This is pretty barbaric, but more to the point isn’t how you should treat a farm-hand. Surely this would have been done to mark the man as a permanent slave, making it impossible for him to run away and start a new life.

Let’s continue reading this passage.

“If a man sells his daughter as a servant, she is not to go free as male servants do. If she does not please the master who has selected her for himself,[b] he must let her be redeemed. He has no right to sell her to foreigners, because he has broken faith with her. 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.”

Okay, let’s go through this line by line.

7: Firstly we now find out that ‘Hebrew slaves’ getting to go free after 6 years isn’t quite accurate. Only the men can. This is a sexual double standard and flies in the face of the claim that slaves were allowed to go free.

8: Often Biblical verses get toned down so not to be too confronting. This makes it difficult to always know what is meant. ‘Pleasing a man’ often means sexual intercourse. In other words this passage is saying the man who bought her has the right to rape her. But on the plus side at least he can’t sell her to foreigners.

9-10: Giving her the rights of a daughter should she marry his son sounds good, and that part of it is good. The bad part of this passage is that once again the woman has no say in this. Verse 10 says she must not be deprived of food, clothing and ‘marital rights’. Marital rights meaning sex.

11: In other words if the husband does NOT rape his slave wife she can go free. Not only is rape accepted, it’s the law.

Beating slaves is cool, just don’t kill them…until next week.

Let’s now jump forward to verse 20.

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.

The natural reaction from many believers is to claim these quotes are being taken out of context. But I ask you, how the fuck can this be taken out of context? You can beat your slaves as long as you don’t kill them. This is indeed abusive and it’s not at all how you treat a farm hand. Or at least, it’s not how we’d treat a farm hand these days. You must also take note of the “after a day or two”. Although it doesn’t explicitly say so, this suggests that if the slave dies after a week the master is not responsible. That’s just sick.

On the plus side if you disfigure a slave the slave can go free. So just make sure those injuries are internal, okay?

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.

 Then versus 28-32:

28 “If a bull gores a man or woman to death, the bull is to be stoned to death, and its meat must not be eaten. But the owner of the bull will not be held responsible. 29 If, however, the bull has had the habit of goring and the owner has been warned but has not kept it penned up and it kills a man or woman, the bull is to be stoned and its owner also is to be put to death. 30 However, if payment is demanded, the owner may redeem his life by the payment of whatever is demanded. 31 This law also applies if the bull gores a son or daughter. 32 If the bull gores a male or female slave, the owner must pay thirty shekels[f] of silver to the master of the slave, and the bull is to be stoned to death.

The bolded bit is the part I want to draw your attention to, but the rest of the passage is included to ensure this isn’t being taken out of context. Quite clearly these slaves weren’t being treated as live in workers. They don’t have the same rights as other workers do.

They really do seem to have something against those cows. Or maybe it was just the golden ones?

On a side note, I can understand killing the bull. We have similar laws these days when dogs attack. But why not eat the bull? That’s good eat’n!

Let’s jump forward now to Leviticus, starting at chapter 25, verse 39:

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.

39-40: So now we return to some nicer passages. Don’t take your fellow Israelites as slaves, but as hired workers. This means one of two things. Either this verse contradicts the earlier ones, or it means it’s okay to beat your hired workers near to death. I’m actually not sure how to read this, but either way I don’t find it moral.

41: The children are to be released. Again, this might be a contradiction, but more likely this passage just ignores any children that were born as slaves. The master gets to keep them.

43: Don’t be ruthless…however you can beat them to death. Umm…okay?

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.

Okay, so you can’t technically buy an Israeli slave. They have to give themselves to you. But you can buy slaves from other places. These slaves are property, and they’re slaves for life. No release after 6 years for the outsiders.  Again we have this idea of not treating slaves ruthlessly, but considering you can beat them this is hard to gauge.

The next and final passage is a big chunk, but it needs to be read in its entirety.

47 “‘If a foreigner residing among you becomes rich and any of your fellow Israelites become poor and sell themselves to the foreigner or to a member of the foreigner’s clan, 48 they retain the right of redemption after they have sold themselves. One of their relatives may redeem them: 49 An uncle or a cousin or any blood relative in their clan may redeem them. Or if they prosper, they may redeem themselves. 50 They and their buyer are to count the time from the year they sold themselves up to the Year of Jubilee. The price for their release is to be based on the rate paid to a hired worker for that number of years. 51 If many years remain, they must pay for their redemption a larger share of the price paid for them. 52 If only a few years remain until the Year of Jubilee, they are to compute that and pay for their redemption accordingly. 53 They are to be treated as workers hired from year to year; you must see to it that those to whom they owe service do not rule over them ruthlessly.

What’s interesting about this passage is that it says Israeli slaves can be bought back and must be released after the 6 year period. Strangely this does not apply to bought slaves from outside your people. Those slaves are property for life. Historically this makes sense, as there were many clans, all with different laws and trying to impose your laws on them would probably end in bloodshed. But as a decree from an all-knowing, loving deity? How do you justify one law for this group of people and another law for a different group?

So let’s do a quick recap of our 5 points.

1. God does not condone oppressive or abusive slavery.

FALSE. Slaves could be beaten, possibly to death.
2. Slaves were paid in material goods such as clothes, food and shelter instead of a salary.

TRUE. The women were also ‘paid’ by having sex with their masters.
3. Slaves could leave after a few years.

FALSE. This only applied to Israeli males.
4. Many slaves chose to continue being slaves due to good conditions.

FALSE. Certainly some slaves would have stayed due to happy conditions, but many would have been blackmailed into it by keeping their families hostage.
5. Slaves were essentially treated as farm-hands.

FALSE. Slaves could be beaten, sold and raped. I sure hope that’s not how they treated the rest of their workers.

All of these claims are either straight out wrong, or only correct because of missing information. These slaves were most likely not treated fairly or kindly and this kind of revisionist history sickens me.

People please, take the time to understand what it is you claim to believe. I do get that the Bible is long and boring (believe me, I’m reading it), but when you believe that your immortal soul is wrapped up in this mythology you really should read your scriptures.

-Ignorance is not bliss. Stay inquisitive.

I found this in my hunt for images. I just had to add it.