“The Bible is a radically pro-slavery
document. Slave-owners waved Bibles over their heads during the
Civil War and justified it.”
(Anti-Christian Activist Dan Savage
addressing High School Students, for the National Scholastic Press
Association, April 13, 2012, quoted at Filibuster
Is this very common accusation valid, arguable, or just plain slander?
Can these people be genuinely unaware the abolitionists "waved
Bibles over their heads during the Civil War"? Which side did in
truth hold the Bible high ground?
From the time of the bruising struggle over the abolition of
slavery that led to the American Civil War, interpreters have
collected and segregated the Bible evidence favorable to their side
and trumpeted that slice of the whole as 'what the Bible says about
slavery.' Abolitionists insisted the Bible leaves no choice for the
Christian but abolition, whereas the defenders of the
racist South alleged the Bible authors found nothing wrong or
questionable in this nearly universal (before Christianity) human
institution. This page aims to restore the sundered whole.
Moses did not invent slavery. This near-universal human
institution was a legacy of brute force and hard-heartedness toward
those facing hunger or insolvency. When one warring tribe over-ran another,
they held it for an act of mercy to spare the lives of the civilian
populace. Instead, they took them as merchandise. Another route into
slavery was debt; when a debtor could not repay, he himself was made
repayment. Moses' law seeks to limit and ameliorate this ubiquitous
institution, without abolishing it. Certainly no one was ever obliged by the
law to buy a slave. Moses enslaved none but the improvident
thief, while he liberated millions from slavery.
The 'red-states' which championed slavery in the years prior to
the Civil War have taken upon themselves the mantle of 'Christian
conservatives,' leading to an unfortunate eclipse of the thinking of
those Northern Christians whose denominations upheld abolition. What
those people saw in the Bible is strangely overlooked, though they were right. Nothing is
more common than to hear from atheists, 'The Bible sees nothing
wrong in slavery.' This simply isn't so.
For purposes of this web-page, slavery is defined as that which
is made illegal by the thirteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
"Involuntary" servitude presupposes lack of consent on the part of the laborer whose services are
coerced, often without compensation; in the American South, this condition
was generally life-long, a permanent affliction to those so unfortunate
as to have fallen under it. Some people claim this practice is
Biblical. As proof, they point to the occurrence of the word 'slave' in
the Bible (though the older King James translation renders words like 'doulos'
as 'servant' or 'bond-servant,' not by way of 'softening,' but rather in
realization that persons so designated are not necessarily in any
condition of permanent, life-long servitude). Is slavery Biblical, really?
In the Mosaic law, involuntary servitude by Jews is term-limited to six years:
“If there is among you a poor man of your brethren, within any of the gates in your land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your poor brother, but you shall open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs. Beware lest there be a wicked thought in your heart, saying, ‘The seventh year, the year of release, is at hand,’ and your eye be evil against your poor brother and you give him nothing, and he cry out to the LORD against you, and it become sin among you. You shall surely give to him, and your heart should not be grieved when you give to him, because for this thing the LORD your God will bless you in all your works and in all to which you put your hand. For the poor will never cease from the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor and your needy, in your land.’
“If your brother, a Hebrew man, or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and serves you six years, then in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. And when you send him away free from you, you shall not let him go away empty-handed; you shall supply him liberally from your flock, from your threshing floor, and from your winepress. From what the LORD has blessed you with, you shall give to him. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this thing today.
. . It shall not seem hard to you when you send him away free from you; for he has been worth a double hired servant in serving you six years. Then the LORD your God will bless you in all that you do.”
“Now these are the judgments which you shall set before them: 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 by himself, he shall go out by himself; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master has given him a wife, and she has borne him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out by himself.”
“This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, after King Zedekiah had made a covenant with all the people who were at Jerusalem to proclaim liberty to them: that every man should set free his male and female slave—a Hebrew man or woman—that no one should keep a Jewish brother in bondage. Now when all the princes and all the people, who had entered into the covenant, heard that everyone should set free his male and female slaves, that no one should keep them in bondage anymore, they obeyed and let them go. But afterward they changed their minds and made the male and female slaves return, whom they had set free, and brought them into subjection as male and female slaves.
Therefore the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying, “Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: ‘I made a covenant with your fathers in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, saying, “At the end of seven years let every man set free his Hebrew brother, who has been sold to him; and when he has served you six years, you shall let him go free from you.” But your fathers did not obey Me nor incline their ear. Then you recently turned and did what was right in My sight—every man proclaiming liberty to his neighbor; and you made a covenant before Me in the house which is called by My name. Then you turned around and profaned My name, and every one of you brought back his male and female slaves, whom he had set at liberty, at their pleasure, and brought them back into subjection, to be your male and female slaves.’
“Therefore thus says the LORD: ‘You have not obeyed Me in proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother and every one to his neighbor. Behold, I proclaim liberty to you,’ says the LORD—‘to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine! And I will deliver you to trouble among all the kingdoms of the earth. And I will give the men who have transgressed My covenant, who have not performed the words of the covenant which they made before Me, when they cut the calf in two and passed between the parts of it—the princes of Judah, the princes of Jerusalem, the eunuchs, the priests, and all the people of the land who passed between the parts of the calf—I will give them into the hand of their enemies and into the hand of those who seek their life. Their dead bodies shall be for meat for the birds of the heaven and the beasts of the earth. And I will give Zedekiah king of Judah and his princes into the hand of their enemies, into the hand of those who seek their life, and into the hand of the king of Babylon’s army which has gone back from you. Behold, I will command,’ says the LORD, ‘and cause them to return to this city. They will fight against it and take it and burn it with fire; and I will make the cities of Judah a desolation without inhabitant.’”
This provision limiting the term of involuntary servitude to six
years falls short of total abolition, but also falls well short of
the unquestioning support for slavery claimed by atheists. Moreover
the reader will notice a process of 'back-stopping.' A Hebrew who
falls into debt slavery must be freed after six years, and must
not leave empty-handed. However if the provisions of the Mosaic law
were followed perfectly, things would not have come to this point
because when he first fell into difficulties, his neighbors would have obeyed the injunction to
"open your hand wide to him and willingly lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs."
The ideal is for none of the congregation to be slaves, but the law
also makes provision to rescue those who have fallen into this state. The
law's rebuke to people who enslave their brethren is, knock it off:
“There were also those who said, 'We have borrowed money for the king’s tax on our lands and vineyards. Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children; and indeed we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been brought into slavery. It is not in our power to redeem them, for other men have our lands and vineyards.'
“And I became very angry when I heard their outcry and these words. After serious thought, I rebuked the nobles and rulers, and said to them, “Each of you is exacting usury from his brother.” So I called a great assembly against them. And I said to them, “According to our ability we have redeemed our Jewish brethren who were sold to the nations. Now indeed, will you even sell your brethren? Or should they be sold to us?”
“Then they were silenced and found nothing to say. Then I said, 'What you are doing is not good.'”
However, it may be they did not stop. It is only
fair to Moses to recognize that if his law had been followed to the
letter, there would have been no Jewish slaves awaiting liberation
at six-year intervals, because the indigent debtor's neighbors would
have 'opened their hands wide.' There is yet another back-stop in the form of the Jubilee as will be
Confronted with this time-limit of six years, atheists reply, 'So
what? It's still slavery.' 'So what'? Would it really have made no
difference if those Africans brought to this country in
chains aboard slave ships went free after a term of service limited
to six years?
People can put up with a lot if they see a light at the end of
the tunnel. Here in Maine, German prisoners of war worked on the
potato farms during World War II. This situation was amicable
enough: the farmers liked the free labor, and the captured soldiers
did not mind working. They knew they were stuck in the camps for the
duration, but once the war was over, they would be going home and
could pick up their lives where they left off. It would have made a
meaningful difference if the men had had reason to believe that
they, and their descendants after them, would be working for these same potato farmers and their descendants,
uncompensated, down to the last human generation. Moses' six-year limitation is not a small or
inconsequential check on the evil of slavery.
One of the abolitionist pamphlets I've uploaded to the Thriceholy
library makes this point:
"If the Mosaic law is to be resorted to in justification of slavery, let us take the whole of it as it was given by the inspired law-giver; and let not the hapless servant be deprived of its lenient provisions in his favor. If we are to be Jews and not Christians, let us at least be consistent Jews, and conform literally to all the instructions of our law-giver."
(Evan Lewis, 'An Address to
Christians of All Denominations').
This is a valid point. If you're going to keep the Mosaic law, then keep the whole of it:
"For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one
point, he is guilty of all." (James 2:10). If American
slave-holders had obeyed Moses' injunctions, they would have let
these people go after six years of service, loaded down with
gifts and provisions. Did they do that? No! Then why claim that
Moses supports an institution which flouts his law?
What happened to a slave who did not want to be released after six years? He could stay:
“And if it happens that he says to
you, ‘I will not go away from you,’ because he loves you and
your house, since he prospers with you, then you shall take an
awl and thrust it through his ear to the door, and he shall be
your servant forever. Also to your female servant you shall do
“But if the servant
plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I
will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to the
judges. He shall also bring him to the door, or to the doorpost,
and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall
serve him forever.”
This situation falls outside the scope of this web-page as it is
not a case of involuntary servitude. Atheists condemn this provision
nevertheless on grounds that it allows slavery. At some point
however one must ask what is being contended for in the term
'slavery,' if what is meant is not a condition which was not chosen.
In addition, 'Canaanite' slaves are mentioned in the Old
Testament, and some apologists for slavery think here they spy
opportunity. God commanded the Canaanites, not to be enslaved, but
to be extirpated; however, this did not happen entirely. Some of
these communities were apparently subject to corvee labor to the
state, not enslaved to private parties. There is no provision for
this situation in the law, it is the result of human improvisation.
How was it regulated?— by treaty? Some people imagine, because this
category of persons is unknown to the law, they are outside the law,
like untouchables, and can be treated however one pleases. However God is no
respecter of persons; none is outside the protection of the law.
The Year of Jubilee
Every forty-ninth year a Jubilee was proclaimed:
"Then you shall cause the trumpet of the Jubilee
to sound on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement you shall make the trumpet to sound throughout all your land. And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you; and each of you shall return to his possession, and each of you shall return to his family."
Any Hebrews that were at that time in a condition of bondage
“If one of your brethren becomes
poor, and falls into poverty among you, then you shall help him,
like a stranger or a sojourner, that he may live with you.
Take no usury or interest from him; but fear your God, that
your brother may live with you. You shall not lend him your
money for usury, nor lend him your food at a profit. I am the
LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give
you the land of Canaan and to be your God.
“And 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. As a hired servant and a sojourner he shall be with you, and shall serve you until the Year of Jubilee. And then he shall depart from you—he and his children with him—and shall return to his own family. He shall return to the possession of his fathers. For they are My servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves. You shall not rule over him with rigor, but you shall fear your God.”
A Jubilee year would not occur more than once in a man's lifetime;
it is a back-stop if the other provisions were honored in the breach.
Again, as in the prior passages, the children of Israel are
admonished not to let a brother Israelite fall into poverty; but
failing that, and failing his liberation at the six-year mark as
already noted, he is to be freed without fail at the year of
Jubilee. This 'back-stopping' in the Mosaic law can seem like
inconsistency, and leads some interpreters to reason like this: 'If
you take Moses literally ('open your hand wide'), then there would
be no slaves; but there plainly are slaves, as there are provisions
for freeing them at the Jubilee; therefore Moses cannot really have
meant what he first said, and slavery is upheld.' There is no reason
to think he did not mean it, yet there are still provisions for
contrary outcomes, and not only because, historically, the Mosaic
law was honored largely in the breach; the children of Israel did
not even get monotheism right, much less freeing the slaves. Suppose
the community is too poor to help; suppose they 'open their hand
wide' and nothing but air falls out. These consecutive 'back-stops'
catch those fallen through the cracks.
It was also obligatory that any Hebrew who fell into the
possession of a heathen owner be redeemed, but failing that, he went
free in the year of Jubilee:
"Now if a sojourner or stranger close to you becomes rich, and one of your brethren who dwells by him becomes poor, and sells himself to the stranger or sojourner close to you, or to a member of the stranger’s family, after he is sold he may be redeemed again. One of his brothers may redeem him; or his uncle or his uncle’s son may redeem him; or anyone who is near of kin to him in his family may redeem him; or if he is able he may redeem himself. Thus he shall reckon with him who bought him: The price of his release shall be according to the number of years, from the year that he was sold to him until the Year of Jubilee; it shall be according to the time of a hired servant for him. If there are still many years remaining, according to them he shall repay the price of his redemption from the money with which he was bought. And if there remain but a few years until the Year of Jubilee, then he shall reckon with him, and according to his years he shall repay him the price of his redemption. He shall be with him as a yearly hired servant, and he shall not rule with rigor over him in your sight. And if he is not redeemed in these years, then he shall be released in the Year of Jubilee—he and his children with him. For the children of Israel are servants to Me; they are My servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God."
The Jubilee promise is to "all the inhabitants [of the land]," (KJV) which
on its face includes resident aliens. The word 'inhabitant' does not specify
religion; it simply means whoever is sitting around there, whether Jew or
Gentile: "As for the Jebusites the inhabitants [yashab 03427] of Jerusalem,
the children of Judah could not drive them out: but the Jebusites dwell
 with the children of Judah at Jerusalem unto this day." (Joshua
15:63). To say "all the inhabitants" does not leave anyone out. It is simplest, and
best, to suppose that "all the inhabitants" means "all the inhabitants," however astonishing
some find it.
It is objected that, as will be seen, Leviticus promises foreign slaves as a
possession "for ever:" "And ye shall take them as an inheritance
for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession;
they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the
children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with
rigor." (Leviticus 25:46 KJV). As should be apparent, though,
what is promised "for ever" is not the services of each
individual bondsman, because human beings do not live here on
this earth "for ever." It is of a succession of
individuals that it is said, "they shall be your bondmen for
ever." If this is said of a self-reproducing cohort, why is
it necessary to keep making additions through purchase?: ". . .of them
shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids." (25:44). Who will be your servants
"for ever"? Not Pedro, Max and Sam, but foreigners. If someone protests that the Jubilee
represents economic suicide, and laments as they watch their foreign
slaves walk out the door at the fiftieth year, Moses reassures
them, 'Don't worry, there are always plenty more where those came
By design the polity of Israel retained few resident aliens,
owing to concerns about idolatrous proselytizing. What is
in view is a continuous process of importation, a 'guest worker' program.
This allowance to import slaves obtained abroad and to purchase resident aliens offered for sale
will provide a source of labor "for ever," even while
individuals are removed from this pool at each recurring
Jubilee. The point is that Israel will not run out of slaves,
in case anyone is concerned there will be a 'labor
shortage,' because they can keep replenishing this pool, not that those who
are in the pool remain "for ever." If someone wonders, 'Who will
pick the lettuce?' The answer might be, 'Mexicans. We have a
guest worker program.' This does not require each individual
Mexican to do nothing in his life but pick lettuce. The Jubilee is for "all
the inhabitants," not only the native-born or the circumcised.
Jew owned by Jew
Jew owned by Gentile
Gentile owned by Jew
The first two categories are discouraged ('open your hand wide').
It is a defeat for Moses if they happen at all; not so the third. This is
not an equal deal; the Jew is not treated like the Gentile. In the New Testament, we will watch
these categories collapse: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither
bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus."
(Galatians3:28). Forty-nine years is a long time to wait for freedom. But as will
be seen, there was a 'fast-track' for those prepared to trust the
God of Israel, who led His people out of bitter bondage in Egypt.
Was the Jubilee year scrupulously observed by the Jews? It would
appear not. The Babylonian Talmud suggests that this is
part of the reason the Jews are in exile: "As a punishment for
incest, idolatry, and non-observance of the years of release and
jubilee exile comes to the world, they [the Jews] are exiled, and
others come and dwell in their place, for it is said, for all these
abominations have the men of the land done, etc.; and it is written,
and the land is defiled. . ." (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbath,
Folio 33a). These laws, alas, were theory rather than fact. The debt-release
of the sabbatical years and the Jubilee
requires the moneyed interests to take a hit in deference to the
interests of the powerless. The prophets never stopped
calling for it:
"Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose
the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the
oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the
poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that
thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine
health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go
before thee; the glory of the LORD shall be thy rearward." (Isaiah
The political difficulties are apparent: the people who
benefit from the Jubilee are the poor and oppressed, while the high and
mighty suffer a pay cut. But you cannot blame Moses for trying.
The Mosaic law enslaves no one except the improvident thief; to the
contrary, it frees the slaves, if enforced. God cannot be blamed for man's
disobedience. While it seems obedience was fitful rather than punctilious,
those minded to obey the law never entirely forgot these ordinances. At a
time when the heathen Roman authorities were persecuting those who
practiced the Jewish faith, Rabbi Eleazar b. Perata was accused of
such practice, in part because he had freed a slave, presumably at
"When they brought up R. Eleazar b. Perata [ for his
trial] they asked him, 'Why have you been studying [the Torah] and
why have you been stealing?' He answered, 'If one is a scholar he is
not a robber, if a robber he is not a scholar, and as I am not the
one I am neither the other.' 'Why then,' they rejoined,' are you
titled Master?' 'I,' replied he, 'am a Master of Weavers.' Then they
brought him two coils and asked, 'Which is for the warp and which
for the woof?' A miracle occurred and a female-bee came and sat on
the warp and a male-bee came and sat on the woof. 'This,' said he,
'is of the warp and that of the woof.' . . .'And why did you let
your slave go free?' He replied, 'No such thing ever happened.'"
(Babylonian Talmud, Abodah Zarah 17b.)
To be sure he denies it, but he also denied being a 'Master' of
the law, pretending instead to mastery of weaving, although the bees
had to show him which was which. Freeing a slave was evidence for
practice of the Jewish faith, just as surely as the thirteen amendment was evidence
for Christian practice in this nation. The prophet Isaiah promises a great Jubilee:
“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me;
because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the
meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim
liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them
that are bound;
“To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD,
and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn;
“To appoint unto them that mourn in Zion, to give unto them beauty
for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise
for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of
righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be
So far is Jesus from restricting or rescinding Moses' institution
of the Jubilee that He applies this very passage to Himself:
"And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written,
'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,
to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.' And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him.
And he began to say unto them, This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears."
Some expositors have suggested that He meant this announcement as the proclamation of a literal or
earthly Jubilee, but I would think He had in the mind the greater
Jubilee. The earthly slave-masters who have seized hold of God's people,
such as Pharaoh of Egypt, Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and the Southern
slave-driver, are essentially weak and feeble in that they can only
control the bodies of their captives, they cannot enter into their
minds. No one need awaken the minds of the oppressed brick-makers in
Egypt to the fact of their oppression. However, Satan is a more subtle
slave-master in that he rules with the consent of the governed; he
convinces his subjects he is their liberator. They sign up willingly
because they have been persuaded that service to him means liberation
from stultifying regulations. Moreover, enrollment in his service means
eternal loss, not the earthly loss of slavery to the Egyptian. The earthly
slave-driver, after he has ruined your life, can do no worse to you; his kingdom ends at death.
But Jesus, while proclaiming liberty from the more dangerous and demeaning service,
is in no way discounting or discouraging the lesser, earthly, periodic
Jubilee Moses enjoined.
When slavery was institutionalized in the American Southland, it required extraordinary legal
protection, including the demand, underscored by the infamous Dred Scott decision, that everybody in
the community, whether pro-slavery or anti-slavery, indifferent or concerned, must stand ready at every
moment to serve as a posse to return an escaped slave to his master.
Otherwise, slavery is untenable, because this form of 'property' comes equipped with
two legs and a brain, perfectly competent to make a quick getaway.
Where is the 'Fugitive Slave' provision of the Mosaic law? There
isn't any. To the contrary, there is this:
“You shall not give back to his master the slave who has escaped from his master to you.
He may dwell with you in your midst, in the place which he chooses within one of your gates, where it seems best to him; you shall not oppress him.”
This is the Fugitive Slave Non-Return Act. In its literal and
natural sense, it requires the only servitude existing in Israel
to be essentially voluntary; if a master is so oppressive the
servant would rather flee from his home and people than serve
him, then the slave cannot be returned. Even though the Romans
were not kind to their slaves, similar circumstances are
recorded in Rome; at times, slaves serving under oppressive
masters were able to petition the courts to release them and
transfer them to other, more benevolent, masters. At this, the pro-slavery side
gets ready. . .for fun with brackets. Time to attach conditions and
exclusions, not stated in the text, to this otherwise benign and
Certainly one must concede, not only in Bible interpretation but
in everyday speech and communication, that there may be 'unstated
conditions' which can reasonably be surmised to obtain, but which
were not specified. However the power to insert bracketed material
at will is also the power to make the Bible say what you want it to
say. The Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, say that Jesus Christ is
a created being; so what do they do with Colossians 1:16, which
says, "For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and
that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or
dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created
through Him and for Him?" This: ". . .because by means of him all
[other] things were created in the heavens and upon the earth. . ."
(New World Translation). So the power to add bracketed material,
while it cannot be denied out of hand, can no more be left to free
exercise at will. The burden of proof must rest upon those who wish
to add such material, for instance restricting Deuteronomy 23:15 to
some tiny [bracketed] population, to show that it really does belong
Were there, in antiquity, sanctuary cites, where fugitive slaves
could resort, without fear of extradition? Of course; Rome was,
early on, one of them:
"Then, lest the size of the city might be of no avail,
in order to augment the population, according to the ancient policy
of the founders of cities, who, after drawing together to them an
obscure and mean multitude, used to feign that their offspring
sprung out of the earth, he opened as a sanctuary, a place which is
now enclosed as you go down "to the two groves." Hither fled from
the neighboring states, without distinction whether freemen or
slaves, crowds of all sorts, desirous of change: and this was the
first accession of strength to their rising greatness." (Livy,
History of Rome, Book I, Chapter 8).
The implication that Jerusalem was such a sanctuary city is made by
Tacitus, who is ordinarilly a reliable historian but in treating of Jewish
issues counts as an anti-semitic writer whose information is not
especially reliable: "The scum and refuse of other nations, renouncing the
religion of their country, flocked in crowds to Jerusalem, enriching the
place with gifts and offerings." (Tacitus, Extracts From the Fifth Book of
Tacitus Respecting the Jews, Kindle location 620, Arguments of Celsus,
Porphyry, and the Emperor Julian, Against the Christians, Thomas Taylor).
The prophet Jeremiah issues a blanket condemnation of those who use their neighbor's services
without paying him wages:
“Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness
and his chambers by injustice, who uses his neighbor’s service without wages
and gives him nothing for his work. . .”
The 'Fun with Brackets' crew gets to work on this passage, and explains that, of courses, it does not
mean you ought to pay slaves for their services. . .because, silly, those are the people whose services you
use without paying wages! It's not clear that Jeremiah intended any
exemption, however. In pagan Roman literature, we read about slaves
diligently saving up their wages until they had enough to purchase
their own freedom. We do not read so much about slaves in the American
Southland saving up their nothing until they had a big pile of the
stuff, and were even embarrassed about what to do with all of it.
Moses allows a man to sell his daughter into a lower grade of marriage:
“And if a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who has betrothed her to himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt deceitfully with her. And if he has betrothed her to his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. If he takes another wife, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, and her marriage rights. And if he does not do these three for her, then she shall go out free, without paying money.”
At with slavery generally, Moses did not invent this institution;
however he regularized it and ameliorated its worst abuses, giving
the woman some measure of legal standing and rights as a wife. In a
similar vein is Deuteronomy 21:11-14:
"And seest among the captives a beautiful woman, and hast a desire unto her, that thou wouldest have her to thy wife;
Then thou shalt bring her home to thine house; and she shall shave her head, and pare her nails;
And she shall put the raiment of her captivity from off her, and shall remain in thine house, and bewail her father and her mother a full month: and after that thou shalt go in unto her, and be her husband, and she shall be thy wife.
And it shall be, if thou have no delight in her, then thou shalt let her go whither she will; but thou shalt not sell her at all for money, thou shalt not make merchandise of her, because thou hast humbled her."
These women are in a legal shadow-land; they cannot be sold, they are
not chattel slaves. On the other hand their condition is not enviable,
because they did not choose it.
One passage where atheist critics of the Bible see
the unqualified acceptance of slavery is Exodus 21:20-21:
“And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand, he shall surely be punished. Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two, he shall not be punished; for he is his property.”
Killing a slave deliberately is, by Moses, considered murder. This was
revolutionary for its time and place: "Sarna writes, 'This law— the
protection of slaves from maltreatment by their masters— is found
nowhere else in the entire existing corpus of ancient Near Eastern
legislation. It represents a qualitative transformation in social
and human values.'" (Israel: Ancient Kingdom or Late Invention?,
edited by Daniel I. Block, Kindle location 3836). However, if death
was not immediate, leaving no question as to responsibility,
the benefit of the doubt went to the master. The atheist objects: the slave-owner is not allowed to kill his slave outright, but if
he beats him to within an inch of his life so that he dies within a few
days, he gets away with murder, unless some other cause intervened. On the
plus side of the ledger, if the assaulted slave survives but is maimed, he
receives his freedom in exchange for the outrage he endured:
“If a man strikes the eye of his male or female servant, and destroys it, he shall let him go free for the sake of his eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of his male or female servant, he shall let him go free for the sake of his tooth."
The free and unrestrained use of physical punishment was a
glaring feature of American slavery, noticed both by outside observers and by those
who had survived the system, like Frederick Douglass:
"A mere look, word, or motion,— a mistake, accident, or want of power,— are
all matters for which a slave may be whipped at any time. Does a slave look dissatisfied? It is said, he has the devil in him, and it must be whipped out. Does he speak loudly when spoken to by his master? Then he is getting high-minded, and should be taken down a button-hole lower. Does he forget to pull off his hat at the approach of a white person? Then he is wanting in reverence, and should be whipped for it. Does he ever venture to vindicate his conduct, when censured for it? Then he is guilty of impudence,— one of the greatest crimes of which a slave can be guilty. Does he ever venture to suggest a different mode of doing things from that pointed out by his master? He is indeed presumptuous, and getting above himself;
and nothing less than a flogging will do for him. Does he, while
plowing, break a plow,— or, while hoeing, break a hoe? It is
owing to his carelessness, and for it a slave must always be whipped."
(Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave,
The law of Moses was not proclaimed as a universal law applicable
to all people at all times and in all places. To the contrary, it
was ordained for a specific people in a specific place: "When ye
come into the land. . ." What portions of the law are even
applicable to Jews in the diaspora, especially after the destruction
of the temple entailing the discontinuance of its court of final
appeal, is a knotty problem. The reader of the Koran and Hadith will recall
Mohammed's indignation at rabbis who covered Mosaic punishments with
their finger; but taken strictly on its own terms, the law does not
say 'everywhere' and 'at all times,' but "when ye come into the
land. . ." This provision forbidding slave-murder in Exodus
21:20 is better than Roman pagan law, which allowed a slave-owner to
kill his slave, without consequences, even if he died right there
on the spot. While Moses' law is an improvement on paganism, it is still not yet God's perfect
will. Pagan Roman law gave the murdered slave no justice:
"Even slaves have the right of refuge at the statue of a god; and although the law allows anything in dealing with a slave, yet in dealing with a human being there is an extreme which the right common to all living creatures refuses to allow. Who did not hate Vedius Pollio even more than his own slaves did, because he would fatten his lampreys on human blood, and order those who had for some reason incurred his displeasure to be thrown into his fishpond — or why not say his snake-preserve? The monster! He deserved to die a thousand deaths, whether he threw his slaves as food to lampreys he meant to eat, or whether he kept lampreys only to feed them on such food!"
(Lucius Annaeus Seneca, 'On Mercy,'
I fervently hope this tale of Vedius Pollio feeding his
slaves to his lampreys to fatten them is an urban legend; is it
really possible for human nature to sink so low? In any event,
if he did it, what he did wasn't illegal under Roman law; thankfully it was
under Moses' law. Christians must interpret Moses' law through
the lens of Jesus' teaching; it is surprising they would ever do
otherwise. In those cases where Moses, taken by himself, might
be interpreted as allowing less than to love one's neighbor as
oneself, he should not be taken by himself but as explicated by
Jesus. On the crucial point, "Who is my neighbor?"— Jesus addressed
this point expressly, and His verdict is binding on those under
Another argument the atheists advance to prove the
Bible supports slavery is the parable of the disappointed
master who beats with "many stripes" the wayward slave:
"But and if that servant say in his heart, My lord delayeth his coming; and shall begin to beat the menservants and maidens, and to eat and drink, and to be drunken;
the lord of that servant will come in a day when he looketh not for him, and at an hour when he is not aware, and will cut him in sunder, and will appoint him his portion with the unbelievers.
And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes."
This, they say, proves beyond question that the Bible finds
nothing wrong with slavery and teaches that slave-masters ought to beat their
slaves. But they are not reading a parable in the way a parable ought to be read.
The master who returns, God, certainly has the right to beat his
unfaithful servants, because He is the potter and they are the clay. That the human master who stands in for Him
beats his unprofitable servant is a fact of life, not
a moral imperative. For example, consider the parable of the
"And he spake a parable unto them to this end, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint;
saying, There was in a city a judge, which feared not God, neither regarded man:
And there was a widow in that city; and she came unto him, saying, Avenge me of mine adversary.
And he would not for a while: but afterward he said within himself, Though I fear not God, nor regard man;
Yet because this widow troubleth me, I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. And the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge saith." (Luke 18:1-5).
The moral of this story is not, 'Judges should be unjust,' nor
even 'God is an unjust judge.' Rather the logic runs, 'If even an
unjust human judge is swayed by persistence, so much more will the just
Judge give way to persistent prayer.' The atheists who make this argument
misunderstand how a parable works: a parable need not set forth the
behavior it describes as morally exemplary. The parable of the unprofitable
servant does not so much as address the question, 'Should human masters beat
their slaves?', much less does it answer it.
Kidnapping a man in order to sell him into slavery was a capital
“He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death.”
"If a man is found kidnapping any of his brethren of the
children of Israel, and mistreats him or sells him, then that
kidnapper shall die; and you shall put away the evil from among
Joseph M. W. Turner, The Slave Ship
The New Testament concurs that this is a grave offense:
"Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers,
for whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine;.
. ." (1 Timothy 1:9-10).
When Europeans made contact with Africa during the era of
discovery, they found there human beings held in slavery, an
institution which a thousand years of Christian civilization had
pushed into the background in Europe. As they began buying up this novel
merchandise, not available at home, at some point it became apparent that the slaves
being shipped to the New World were not persons long ago fallen into this
condition, but persons specially stolen for
the purpose. The European slave-ships were offering valuable goods in
exchange for slaves. This market demand elicited a supply,
which came from needless wars and skirmishes that would not otherwise
have occurred without the imperative to collect slaves for
trade. Indeed some traffickers even grabbed people at random who were walking along the road.
'Man-stealing' or kidnapping, reducing free persons into a
condition of slavery, was never legal, not under Moses' law, not
even under the laws of the pagans. Yet that was how the American Southerners
had got their slaves. Even in the unenlightened law-courts of pagan Rome, these waylaid kidnap victims could have
petitioned to regain their freedom. How their bad title ever turned into good title, the
apologists for Southern slavery could never explain.
Foreigners for Sale
This provision of Moses' law, which allows foreigners who are not
part of the covenant people to be held in slavery and sold as
slaves, as a possession, is the crux of the atheists' case
that the Bible does, after all, allow slavery:
“And as for your male and female slaves whom you may have—from the nations that are around you, from them you may buy male and female slaves. Moreover you may buy the children of the strangers who dwell among you, and their families who are with you, which they beget in your land; and they shall become your property. And you may take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them as a possession; they shall be your permanent slaves. But regarding your brethren, the children of Israel, you shall not rule over one another with rigor.”
It is true that the children of Israel are permitted to keep heathen slaves, exceeding the
otherwise applicable six-year limit. These are the long waiters who
must endure up to forty-nine years of servitude; some of these people might
not live so long as to see freedom. But there are other considerations, often
over-looked, which go along with this arrangement. Who is a neighbor, and who is a
stranger? Any stranger or sojourner who wanted to join the people of
God was free to do so.
Under the Old Testament, by and large any sojourners in the
nation of Israel who remained outside the covenant people of God
themselves chose that status. Entry was open to them, and encouraged
by passages like Exodus 12:44: "But every man’s servant that is
bought for money, when thou hast circumcised him, then shall he eat
thereof." Once they had joined the congregation, Moses' protections
covered these new-comers as well as the native-born. One formula of emancipation
acknowledges the power of this new status: "R. Joshua b. Levi said: If a servant puts on phylacteries
in the presence of his master, he becomes a free man."
(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Gittin, 40a). The pro-slavery side assumes that
membership in the people of God is in consequence of ethnicity, not
confession: "But let it be noted that the peculiar mitigations of
slavery affected only slaves of Hebrew blood, not Gentiles." (Robert
Lewis Dabney, Defense of Virginia and the South, Kindle location
1495), but this is not scriptural nor could be long sustained.
Abraham had set a precedent: "And all the men of his house, born in the house, and
bought with money of the stranger, were circumcised with him."
(Genesis 17:27). Oddly enough, pro-slavery apologist Robert Lewis Dabney
actually insists upon this point, without realizing he is
eliminating the category of 'foreign slaves:' ". . .the circumcision
of the slaves was God's act, and not Abraham's. God knows all
things." (Robert Lewis Dabney, Defense of Virginia and the South,
Kindle location 1303). If it is indeed God's will for slaves to be
brought into the covenant, then foreign slaves in Israel cease to be
such, embarking instead upon the 'up to six years then free' track. A conflict would arise between the rising Christian
majority of the Roman empire and Jewish slave-owners, who persisted
in the good deed of circumcising their slaves, even if the slaves
had been Christians. Through fear of this engrained custom of Jewish
slave-owners proselytizing their non-Jewish slaves, several of the
later emperors legislated against Jewish ownership of Christian
"Jewish teachers cited biblical texts to support the view that a
Jewish master should circumcise his Gentile slaves. If the slaves
disagreed, it was a common opinion that they should be given a year
to think the matter over. If they still refused, they should be sold
to a pagan master. . .The circumcision of slaves had played an
important part in the spread of the Jewish faith and the conspicuous
numbers of Jewish freedmen. By circumcision, slaves were 'brought
under the wings of the Shekinah.'" (Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and
Christians, p. 296).
"R. Joshua b. Levi said: If a man bought a slave from an idolater,
and the slave refused to be circumcised, he may bear with him for twelve
months. [If by that time he had] not been circumcised, he must re-sell
him to idolaters." (Babylonian Talmud, Yebamoth 48b). However, the
formerly heathen slave does not enter into the covenant immediately upon
circumcision (if male): "R. Hisda said: A heathen slave [owned by a Jew]
may marry his daughter and his mother, for he has lost the status of a
heathen, but has not yet attained that of a Jew." (Babylonian Talmud,
Sanhedrin 58b). Baptism also was required to complete the
[formerly] pagan slave's entry into membership in the people of God: "Rabbah quoted
against R. Nahman: If [an Israelite] bought slaves from a heathen, who
had been circumcised but not immersed, and similarly with the children
of female slaves, who had been circumcised but not immersed, their
spittle and the place where they tread in the street are unclean, but
others declare that they are clean." (Babylonian Talmud, Abodah Zarah,
57a-b). Given the hostility of Christian, and Muslim, publics, towards the
Israelite practice of awarding freedom to slaves subsequent to
conversion to Judaism, it ceased to be practiced, in the interests of
maintaining civic peace:
"At the first acquisition of an adult Gentile bondman by
an Israelite owner, the Talmud teaches that the bondman should be
consulted with respect to becoming circumcised, and that, if he
persistently refuses during a space of twelve months to undergo the
rite, the owner should return him to the Gentile owner. It seems
that to circumcise and convert him against his will is of no avail.
But later authorities (especially in Christian countries; see ReMA's
gloss on Shulhan 'Aruk, Yoreh De'ah, 267, 4) assert that the
Israelite, in purchasing the bondman, may specially contract not to
introduce him into Judaism; and that 'now and here' such a contract
would be presumed in all cases, because Jews are not permitted to
make converts." (Jewish Encyclopedia, Article Slavery).
However this later reluctance to follow out the letter of the law
cannot be projected back onto Moses; from the outset, the commonwealth of Israel has
always accepted heathen converts, from the mixed multitude who went out from
Egypt with the people of God, even those whose awakening may be
self-interested. The assumption 'once a foreigner, always a
foreigner' tracks with neither the Bible design nor with practice.
The Babylonian Talmud is quite late, dating from an era not only
far removed from Moses but also subsequent to the apostles. Though
it carries no authority with Christians, it is encouraging to
realize some of the Rabbis thought the point of purchasing a
heathen slave in the first place is, not to keep him outside of the
congregation forever, but rather precisely the opposite, to bring him under the wings of
“Said R. Jeremiah to R. Zera: It was
taught, 'We may buy of them cattle, menservants and maidservants,—
is this to be applied to a Jewish servant or to a heathen servant
also?— Said he in reply: According to common sense, a Jewish
servant [is meant]; for were it to apply to a heathen servant,
what [meritorious] use could he make of him? When Rabin came, he
said in the name of R. Simeon b. Lakish: It may even apply to a
heathen servant; because he brings him under the wings of the
(Babylonian Talmud, Abodah Zarah 13b).
Even failing the foreign slave's conversion to Judaism, under Moses' law, the standard of behavior toward
strangers dwelling in the land was not 'anything goes,' but fair
treatment. Though not covered by the six-year term-limit
protecting the congregation, these people were by no means fair game
for plunder or "men-stealing":
"And if a stranger dwells with you in your land, you shall not mistreat him. The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God."
What is the relevance of this oft-cited point to Southern slavery? The
Southern slaves were neither heathen nor foreigners; after the
importation of slaves was prohibited early in the life of the
Republic, the bulk of the slave population were native-born. By any rational
civil standard, they were citizens not foreigners. Neither were they heathen. When
Africans were brought to this country, they initially practiced a variety
of religions, mostly animist but some few Muslims. Partly owing to
the mingling of different languages and cultures, these religions
did not survive as ongoing concerns. By the time of the Civil War
the slave population was Christian: these people were not heathen,
they were the people of God just as much as were their owners, if
indeed these wicked slave-owners can be counted such. So why did the
Southern slave-owners refer to this provision of the law, when the
slaves whose condition of servitude they wished to prolong to infinity were
neither foreigners nor heathens? What is the relevance? The relevance seems to be, that
if the Bible allows some loop-hole somewhere through which some
people at some time were lawfully held in bondage, then let's drive a steam locomotive through that little gap,
perhaps it will get bigger.
The abolitionists originally made their case against this
inhuman institution on the grounds of Christian charity. But when the
pro-slavery side came back with the law of Moses, they replied,
'Fine, let's go there. If we are to live under the law of Moses,
though not placed under this yoke by the council at Jerusalem (Acts
15), when may we expect the Jubilee?' Certainly a Jubilee would have
been the death knell of Southern slavery, because Congress had
already closed the door to African slave importation. Going
'shopping' to foreign nations to replenish the slaves liberated by the Jubilee,
as allowed but not required by Leviticus, was
not going to happen. But it turned out the South did not really
want to live under the law of Moses after all. When the Jubilee
came, it came at the hands of a racist Northern general carrying the Emancipation Proclamation, not at the
hands of Southern enthusiasts for the law of Moses:
"Hurrah! Hurrah! We bring the Jubilee!
Hurrah! Hurrah! The flag that makes you free!
So we sang the chorus from Atlanta to the sea,
While we were marching through Georgia."
(Marching Through Georgia)
Who is a neighbor, and who is a foreigner? Jesus addressed this very question, so it is
perplexing that any of those who say they follow him do not know the
answer by heart:
"And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself.
And he said unto him, Thou hast answered right: this do, and thou shalt live.
But he, willing to justify himself, said unto Jesus, And who is my neighbor?
And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead.
And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side.
And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side.
But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,
and went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.
And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.
Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves?
And he said, He that showed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise."
It is a genuine mystery how there can be any Christian who does
not know that this is how Jesus answered this very important legal
question, or knows the answer but does not feel bound by it. Who is
your neighbor? There is no one who is not.
There is a modern religion for which these issues are central.
Fueled by a just indignation against slavery and strangely
incomplete information about history, the Nation of Islam saw fit to
discard the religion which freed humanity from the scourge of
slavery in favor of a religion whose founder was a slave-owner:
The pro-slavery side may object: It is easy enough to find fault
with Southern chattel slavery, which in no way conformed to Moses'
law; the fact that those blameless people had been held in hopeless, lifelong
bondage for generations, watching multiple Sabbaticals and Jubilees
pass unobserved, was more than enough to justify the demand for
their immediate emancipation. But the abolitionists' proposal going
forward was not to reinstitute the Mosaic system of periodic
liberation, rather the thirteenth amendment forbids plunging persons
who are not criminals into the state of involuntary servitude, for
any term whatever. Is this not to 'improve' upon the Bible? What
rationale can be offered, not for a Jubilee which is solidly Biblical, but for the thirteenth amendment? According to Jesus, there are provisions of the Mosaic law which
are there because the people were unteachable:
“They said to Him, “Why then did Moses command to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?”
He said to them, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”
In other words the provisions of Moses' law do not represent
God's perfect and unchanging will, but are in some measure a
compromise between God's will and what was possible to a particular
people at a particular time. This is not my interpretation, but the Lord's.
The reader of Moses' law notices also that it is written for a
pastoral and agrarian people; a contemporary sea-faring nation might
have required different laws. Slavery is a near-universal human
institution; the most efficient labor-saving device ever invented is
to force somebody else to do all the work, and this 'discovery' has
been made many times by many different people. Any constitution
establishing an island of freedom within a slave world will
encounter the problem of the interface between the two. This principle explains the limited
permission for involuntary servitude allowed by the Mosaic law. Though, as
shown, this permission was narrowly circumscribed with strict limits
imposed as to the term of service, unwilling service nevertheless was allowed for a
Servitude was in no case mandated, however, except for the
improvident thief; Moses requires the unwilling servant to be freed at the
Sabbatical year, he does not require him to have been bound to service
in the first place. Thus it is in error to say that Moses' law institutes six-year labor contracts.
Although the early American states provided legal protection for
indentured servitude for a term of up to six years, the Christian who follows Jesus' precepts
need not go down that road, even bound and circumscribed as Moses leaves it. We can follow our Lawgiver more closely: our
bankruptcy laws allow for a rolling Jubilee, which makes a better
fit to a credit economy, causing less disruption than a fixed
Jubilee year. So debtor slavery, which Moses strongly discouraged ('open your hand'), can be eradicated.
The plainest and simplest interpretation of these provisions frees the slaves
at the recurring Sabbatical year; however, some interpreters demur:
"The manumission of Jewish slaves took place in the
seventh year of their bondage, whenever that might be, and bears no
reference to the Sabbatical year, with which, indeed, some of its
provisions could not easily have been compatible (Deuteronomy
15:14)." (Alfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its Ministry and Services,
If so, this would eke the full six years' service out of each
slave. Unfortunately there is no living tradition of the enforcement
of these provisions of Moses' law, because they were very often simply not enforced.
We can do better also with civilian war captives, who were the vast ocean of supply for
the pagan Roman slave machine: the Geneva convention protects their safety and property, so they are not left with
the forlorn and only hope their lives will be spared for the slave-market. In setting up
these arrangements we obey Jesus' precepts and also honor both the letter and the spirit
of Moses' Jubilee. The Romans' preferred legal argument in favor of slavery,
that it was a act of benevolence to spare the civilian populace's
life, never found much traction with ethicists in Christendom, who
realized that the conqueror has no right to slaughter the conquered
population in the first place:
"The authors of our public law, guided by ancient
histories, without confining themselves to cases of strict
necessity, have fallen into very great errors. They have adopted
tyrannical and arbitrary principles, by supposing the conquerors to
be invested with I know not what right to kill: thence they have
drawn consequences as terrible as the very principle, and
established maxims which the conquerors themselves, when possessed
of the least grain of sense, never presumed to follow. . .From the
right of killing in the case of conquest, politicians have drawn that
of reducing to slavery — a consequence as ill-grounded as the
principle." (Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, Kindle
The Christian idea of the rights and obligations of the conqueror
tore down the scaffolding upon which the legal defense of slavery in
Roman law rested. Why this legal argument was so popular for so long
is unclear; all it ever accomplished, by grounding the 'right' to
slavery in lawless violence, was to hold this unjust servitude over
until a greater spasm of violence by the indignant slaves brought it
to a close: "Over the rest of the people, if there were any that
consented not to the war, and over the children of the captives
themselves, or the possessions of either, he [the conqueror] has no
power; and so can have, by virtue of conquest, no lawful title
himself to dominion over them, or derive it to his posterity; but is
an aggressor, if he attempts upon their properties, and thereby puts
himself in a state of war against them, and has no better a
right of principality, he, nor any of his successors, than Hingar,
or Hubba, the Danes, had here in England; or Spartacus, had he
conquered Italy, would have had; which is to have their yoke cast
off, as soon as God shall give those under the subjection courage
and opportunity to do it. Thus, notwithstanding whatever title the
kings of Assyria had over Judah, by the sword, God assisted Hezekiah
to throw off the dominion of that conquering empire." (John Locke,
Two Treatises of Government, page 65, Kindle location 3421). The
thirteenth amendment is the way to obey the Bible. The people who made these
arrangements were not 'better' than the Bible; they learned how to be good from the Bible.
There is a case in which Moses' law requires a man to be sold
"If a man shall steal an ox, or a sheep, and kill it, or sell it; he shall restore five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep. If a thief be found breaking up, and be smitten that he die, there shall no blood be shed for him. If the sun be risen upon him, there shall be blood shed for him; for he should make full restitution; if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft."
The thief must make restitution. But if he cannot, he himself
must be the restitution. Since the thirteenth amendment does not
prohibit chain gangs or other similar ventures, this case falls
outside our sphere of concern. Those in prison have not had their
liberty stolen from them, rather they themselves forfeited it, when
they did whatever it is they did that landed them in prison.
The central story-line of the larger of the two testaments
revolves around the liberation of Israel from bondage in Egypt. In
light of the crucial importance of this history, it is perplexing
that some people have managed to talk themselves into believing the
Bible is a pro-slavery tract. If slavery is a good thing, why was
leading the Israelites out from slavery also a good thing?
Though they entered Egypt as invited guests, by the time of the
exodus the Jews had fallen into harsh and bitter bondage:
"And it came to pass in process of time, that the king of Egypt died: and the children of Israel sighed by reason of the bondage, and they cried, and their cry came up unto God by reason of the bondage.
And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob.
And God looked upon the children of Israel, and God had respect unto them."
God heard their cries:
"And I have also heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered my covenant.
Wherefore say unto the children of Israel, I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you out of their bondage, and I will redeem you with a stretched out arm, and with great judgments: And I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God: and ye shall know that I am the LORD your God, which bringeth you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians."
It did not escape the notice of the African slaves that the Old Testament is the story of a slave population
liberated by God. For some reason this inescapable fact still escapes the
notice of the atheists. Upon their departure, the Israelites spoiled the
"And I will give this people favour in the sight of the Egyptians: and it shall come to pass, that, when ye go, ye shall not go empty:
but every woman shall borrow of her neighbour, and of her that sojourneth in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment: and ye shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters; and ye shall spoil the Egyptians."
What was this, opportunistic plunder? No, fair compensation for unpaid wages:
"It happened again that the Egyptians summoned Israel
before Alexander of Macedonia, demanding from them the gold and
silver which they had borrowed from them at the time of their
exodus. As it reads [Ex. xii. 36]: 'And the Lord hath given the
people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, so that they gave unto
them what they required; and they emptied out Egypt.' And Gbiah b.
Psisa requested from the sages permission to be the advocate of the
defendant Israel, with the same reason mentioned above. He got this
permission, and did so. Then he said to them: What is your evidence?
And their answer was: From your Torah. Then said he: I in defense will also bring my evidence from the same, which reads [ibid. 40]:
'Now the time of the residence of the children of Israel, which they
dwelt in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years.' Hence I demand
of you the wages for the labor of six hundred thousand men whom your
parents compelled to work for them all the time they were in Egypt."
(The Babylonian Talmud, edited by Michael L. Rodkinson, Volume XVI,
Chapter XI, Tract Sanhedrin, Chapter, Kindle location 64432).
The Essenes were a Jewish sect not in receipt of the New Testament or
the good news of God in Christ. Though lacking any scripture but the Old
Testament, they reportedly rejected slavery:
"And they do not use the ministrations of slaves, looking upon the possession
of servants or slaves to be a thing absolutely and wholly contrary to nature,
for nature has created all men free, but the injustice and covetousness
of some men who prefer inequality, that cause of all evil, having subdued
some, has given to the more powerful authority over those who are weaker."
(Philo Judaeus, On the Contemplative Life, Chapter
"Among those men you will find no makers of arrows, or javelins, or swords, or helmets, or breastplates, or shields; no makers of arms or of military engines; no one, in short, attending to any employment whatever connected with war, or even to any of those occupations even in peace which are easily perverted to wicked purposes; for they are utterly ignorant of all traffic, and of all commercial dealings, and of all navigation, but they repudiate and keep aloof from everything which can possibly afford any inducement to covetousness; and there is not a single slave among them, but they are all free, aiding one another with a reciprocal interchange of good offices; and they condemn masters, not only as unjust, inasmuch as they corrupt the very principle of equality, but likewise as impious, because they destroy the ordinances of nature, which generated them all equally, and brought them up like a mother, as if they were all legitimate brethren, not in name only, but in reality and truth."
(Philo Judaeus, Every Good Man is Free, Chapter XII).
There is a book of the New Testament devoted to smoothing over the situation of a run-away slave
who came to know the Lord. Paul sends Onesimus, the slave, back to his
Christian master Philemon:
"I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten while in my chains, who once was unprofitable to you, but now is profitable to you and to me.
I am sending him back. You therefore receive him, that is, my own heart, whom I wished to keep with me, that on your behalf he might minister to me in my chains for the gospel. But without your consent I wanted to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion, as it were, but voluntary.
For perhaps he departed for a while for this purpose, that you might receive him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave—a beloved brother, especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.
If then you count me as a partner, receive him as you would me. But if he has wronged you or owes anything, put that on my account. I, Paul, am writing with my own hand. I will repay—not to mention to you that you owe me even your own self besides."
Taken literally the "no longer as a slave" of verse 16
would suggest that Paul wants Philemon to set Onesimus free, however
he may not mean it literally. Verse 16 does make clear that Paul
perceives an incongruity between being a "slave" and being a
"brother," and he expects Philemon to
receive Onesimus as "a brother beloved." If he perceived no
incongruity, why not say, 'receive him back as a slave and as a
brother'? Instead he says, "no longer as a slave."
Unlike the Supreme Court justices who rendered the monstrous Dred Scott decision, Paul is not
scandalized that a slave fled from his master; he does not want
Philemon to punish him for it, though Philemon had the right in law
and custom to do so: "But there was a certain Campanian in the army, a
runaway Roman slave named Spendius, a man of extraordinary physical
strength and reckless courage in the field. Alarmed lest his master
should recover possession of him, and he should be put to death with
torture, in accordance with the laws of Rome, this man exerted himself
to the utmost in word and deed to break off the arrangement with the
Carthaginians." (Polybius, The Histories, Book I, Chapter 69, Kindle
location 2080). This is not what Paul wants. Paul wants Philemon to receive the returning
run-away "as myself." He expects Philemon to do even more than this:
"Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that
you will do even more than I say." (Philemon 1:21). What is this
Moses' law did not require the community to return an escaped
slave: “You shall not give back to his master the slave who has escaped from his master to you. He may dwell with you in your midst, in the place which he chooses within one of your gates, where it seems best to him; you shall not oppress him."
(Exodus 23:15-16). Whether Paul respected civil enactments
comparable to that upheld by the Dred Scott decision or not, he did
ultimately speed Onesimus on his way back to his master.
Nevertheless he does not send him back as a slave but as a brother.
The New Testament does not contain any direct command for
Christians slave-owners to free all their slaves, or for Christian
citizens to work for the abolition of slavery. Those who ponder what
it means for Philemon to receive Onesimus back as a brother may yet
feel led in those directions. The general provisions of
Christian morality: the command to do unto others as you would have
them do unto you,— leave no room for this cruel
institution, which no one chooses for himself. No one in classical antiquity
was under any illusion on this score; Plato gives an analogy of a
slave-owner transported to the wilderness with his slaves. What will
he expect them to do? Kill him, of course:
"What is your illustration?
"The case of rich individuals in cities who possess many slaves.
. .You know that they live securely and have nothing to apprehend from their servants?
"What should they fear?
"Nothing. But do you observe the reason of this?
"Yes; the reason is, that the whole city is leagued together for the protection of each individual.
"Very true, I said. But imagine one of these owners, the master say of some fifty slaves, together with his family and property and slaves, carried off by a god into the wilderness, where there are no freemen to help him—will he not be in an agony of fear lest he and his wife and children should be put to death by his slaves?"
(Plato, Republic, Book IX).
Slave-owners have always feared from their slaves what John
Brown delivered. If their security arrangements fail them, the
slave-owner cannot expect gratitude and good-will. This is not an
institution that can be defended by the Golden Rule. As the author asks in
one of the anti-slavery tracts I've uploaded,
"If we fulfill the injunction of our religion, to do to others as we would wish them to do unto us — if we love our neighbor as ourselves, can we consign him and his posterity to hopeless and interminable slavery?"
(Evan Lewis, 'An Address to
Christians of All Denominations, On the Inconsistency of Admitting Slave-Holders to Communion and Church Membership.')
To ask that question is also to answer it; it can be answered only one way.
Even the pagans of classical antiquity felt it was a civic and philanthropic duty
to free slaves: "Do we not free our slaves chiefly for the express
purpose of making out of them as many citizens as possible?" (Cassius Dio, Roman History, Book LVI, Chapter 7.6).
The atheists' case that the New Testament is pro-slavery demands much of the
reader's indulgence: when Paul tells Philemon to receive back his run-away slave "no longer as a slave,"
of course he does not mean that the way it sounds. But if he did not mean what he said,
what did he mean?
Christian ethics is upside-down by the world's standards. The carnal man, when he is injured
unjustly, wants pay-back. But this is not what Christians are called to:
"But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also."
When New Testament authors counsel Christian slaves to serve their masters faithfully, this is sometimes
taken as a confident endorsement of the slave system. After all, if these authors thought slavery in any way unjust,
they would surely not recommend the slaves to excel at their work:
"Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ; Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart;
With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men:
Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free.
And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him."
What might surprise some people is that this advice is exactly the same if it is stipulated that the
master is unjust:
"Servants, be subject to your masters with all fear; not only to the good and gentle, but also to the froward.
For this is thankworthy, if a man for conscience toward God endure grief, suffering wrongfully.
For what glory is it, if, when ye be buffeted for your faults, ye shall take it patiently? but if, when ye do well, and suffer for it, ye take it patiently, this is acceptable with God.
For even hereunto were ye called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that ye should follow his steps:
Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth:
Who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; when he suffered, he threatened not; but committed himself to him that judgeth righteously:
Who his own self bare our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed."
(1 Peter 2:18-24).
This is what Jesus did; He was not crucified justly, for crimes He had committed. He was innocent of the
charge of blasphemy, yet He suffered patiently. Not everyone likes the
ethic of 'turn the other cheek;' Tom Paine accused the maxim of "assassinating the dignity of forbearance, and sinking man into a
spaniel." (Tom Paine, The Age of Reason, p. 172). Like today's atheists,
the Deist Tom Paine wanted to claim that you don't need revealed
religion to be moral, because the moral guidance that comes from nature
is sufficient: "As to the fragments of morality that are irregularly and
thinly scattered in those books, they make no part of this pretended
thing called revealed religion. They are the natural dictates of
conscience and the bonds by which society is held together, and without
which it cannot exist; and are nearly the same in all religions and in
all societies." (Tom Paine, The Age of Reason, p. 171). His argument
implodes immediately when he reaches this thing which is not the same, because most
human societies and most systems of ethics do not encourage a wronged
person to turn the other cheek. Callicles thought it was the part of a slave to suffer
injury without being able to retaliate: "For the suffering of injustice
is not the part of a man, but of a slave, who indeed had better die than
live; since when he is wronged and trampled upon, he is unable to help
himself, or any other about whom he cares." (Plato, 'Gorgias').
However you can't take it away from Christians:
That the reciprocal advice to slave-masters: that they should treat their
slaves as Onesimus, as brothers, no longer as slaves,— would have
undermined and subverted the institution of slavery as it then existed
is freely admitted by pro-slavery apologists like Douglas Wilson. If
they had done that,— really done it, not continued with the status
quo while saying they were doing it,— nothing recognizable as slavery
would have remained.
The New Testament authors, as representatives of a small, persecuted sect within the empire, were not in a position
to dictate terms to the world. What terms they might have dictated had they been in such a position is
open to dispute. Jesus Himself said, "My kingdom is not of this world"
(John 18:36); the church is not a sovereign state nor a civil government nor an interest group cemented
around a political program. But once the church became strong under Constantine,
Christians politicians began to make small, incremental changes to
this ubiquitous and universal ancient institution. First they demanded respect for slave marriages. Then they made
other changes, until ultimately the institution was no longer
This New Testament advice would be the same whether the apostles
thought slavery just or unjust. Paul encourages his enslaved readers
to claim their freedom if possible: "Art thou called being a
servant? care not for it: but if thou mayest be made free, use it
rather. For he that is called in the Lord, being a servant, is the
Lord’s freeman: likewise also he that is called, being free, is
Christ’s servant. Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men." (1
Corinthians 7:21). If this is not within reach, they are to "care not."
These principles neither condemn the slave system nor endorse it.
When the Word of God came in to this world, He took the "form of a servant:"
"But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him
the form of a servant [μορφην δουλου,
form of a slave], and was made in the likeness of men:. . ." (Philippians 2:7).
Someone might say, 'Yes, but that is just high-flown language, all men are as slaves before God, Jesus, a carpenter,
never held the civil status of a slave.' This is true but He was sold for
the same price as a slave is valued, thirty pieces of silver: "And I said
unto them, If ye think good, give me my price; and if not, forbear. So
they weighed for my price thirty pieces of silver.' (Zechariah 11:12).
This is the restitution price for a slave: "If the
ox shall push a manservant or a maidservant; he shall give unto their
master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned." (Exodus 21:32). Free-born Roman citizens were
exempt from crucifixion, which thus became a punishment the Roman writers think
of as especially fit for a slave: "The cruelty even of men in private
station has been avenged by the hands of slaves despite their certain
risk of crucifixion. . ." (Seneca, Essay on Mercy, 1. xxvi.). Juvenal
reports the mistress of the house crying, "Crucify that slave!"
(Juvenal, Satires, Book VI, 219). So Jesus, while not a slave by legal status, was
sold for money at the valuation of a slave and suffered the death of a slave.
"For the mystery of Christ is in peril of being disbelieved
by reason of the intensity of its marvellousness: God was in human
nature, and in our estate He that is over all creation; the Invisible,
visible by reason of flesh; He that is out of Heaven and from above in
likeness of things earthy; the Impalpable subject to touch; He that is
in His own Nature Free in bondman's form; He Who blesseth the creation
was made subject to curse, among the transgressors All-Righteousness,
and in guise of death Life." (Clement of Alexandria, That Christ is
One, by Way of Dispute with Hermias, p. 249).
Seeing humanity divided into slave and free, the living God, in
becoming incarnate, chose one side of that man-made divide. We Christians
worship a risen and ascended slave.
The same Bible which inspired the abolitionists was also cited by
the Southern slave-owners, who developed a particularly vicious form
of the institution, in support of their crimes. Does this prove that
the Bible is hopelessly ambiguous, or just that it is subject to
misuse by ill-intentioned men? Realize that other students of Moses
have drawn very different conclusions about how we are to live. The
church at Jerusalem included many zealous for the law: "And when
they heard it, they glorified the Lord, and said unto him, Thou
seest, brother, how many thousands of Jews there are which believe;
and they are all zealous of the law:. . ." (Acts 21:20). They drew
the conclusion, in their zeal, that they should hold all things in
"And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart
and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things
which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common."
This is the principle of the Jubilee taken to its furthest
extreme. Where is the atheists' Bible, which fully supports, they say, the
rights of slave-owners, in this Jerusalem church? Is it possible
that slaves and slave-owners "had all things common," and yet
slavery persisted? A form of manumission known to the Talmud is that the
slave-owner deeds all his property to the slave: "Rabina said to R.
Ashi, Come and hear: If one gave all his property to his slave, in
writing, [the latter] goes forth [as] a free man." (Babylonian
Talmud, Tractate Baba Bathra, Folio 150a). The logic of this is
apparent: if the slave beneficiary now owns all his master's goods,
he also owns himself and is free. To own these goods in common with
others declines from this ideal, but the idea of a slave owned in
common by a group including himself is problematical to say the
least! The Talmud goes on to stipulate, if deeded to two, the two slaves can
emancipate one another: "Rabina thereupon said to R. Ashi: How does
this differ from the case regarding which it has been taught: 'If a
man makes over all his property in writing to two of his slaves,
they acquire possession and emancipate one another?'" (Babylonian
Talmud, Tractate Gittin, Folio 87a). So far so good, we're up to
two: how about a small group?
The atheists tell us that the Bible was concocted to support the claims of property
owners. These atheist critics need to read the law of Moses more carefully; it is not what they think. Moses
proclaims the economics of the Jubilee, not an absolute defense of the rights
of proprietors. They are projecting an agenda into the Bible suggested to them by its Marxist
critics, not by anything in the text.
When the apostles travelled through the Gentile world preaching
the good news of the kingdom, they did not intend to spark a
political revolution devoted to the goal of establishing Moses' law
as a universal polity. Their reticence on this point resulted not
only from a prudential concern to avoid being crushed like an
insect, but also from a sincere conviction that Moses' law, which
had never been intended as a universal regime, had been nailed to
the cross. However, it cannot plausibly be maintained that their
politics had been upended, as if God, who had been for the slave in
the Old Testament, had switched sides and was now for the
slave-owner. When Christians go from being a tiny, persecuted
minority in a pagan world to the nominal majority, the fact that
their consciences have been formed by diligent study of Moses cannot
help but influence the institutions they choose for themselves, the
choice being freely their own.
Slavery in pagan Rome held out a 'career path:' the diligent slave could
hope for manumission, to be set free. He would still be attached to his former owner
as patron, but otherwise free to live his life as he wished, and his money was his
own. Southern slavery held out no similar path to upward mobility because of the racism of
the Southern slave-owners, who scarcely regarded their African
slaves as human beings. At times the law in the Southern states either
discouraged manumission or very nearly disallowed it altogether:
"'And, that where any Slave shall be set free by his
master or owner, otherwise than is herein before directed, it shall
and may be lawful for the church-wardens of the parish. . .are
hereby authorized and required to take up and sell the said Negro,
Mulatto, or Indian, as slaves, at the next court held for the said
county, by public outcry, &tc.'" (colonial law of Virginia, quoted
p. 46, Granville Sharp, A Representation of the Injustice and
Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery, Part III).
The American slave was in a hopeless
condition; he could not expect anything better either for himself or
for his children. The nineteenth century did not invent racism,
though it perfected it under the guise of science. This brutal and inhuman institution, even
worse than ancient pagan slavery, was justly overthrown, by a
Christian people whose morals were informed by both testaments of
The Christian abolitionists were wonderfully successful by all
normal historical standards. The ideal they set out seemed at first
unreachable, yet there are hardly any slaves left now in the world,
owing strictly to their efforts. By the mid-nineteenth century, the abolitionists
had already won, by Biblical persuasion, in all but one dark and unchristian corner of this nation:
"The labors of those who
conscientiously engaged in the cause of abolition as religious duty,
gave a tone to public opinion in the northern and middle states,
which resulted in the enactment of laws for the total extinction of
slavery in those states." (Evan Lewis, 'An Address
to Christians of All Denominations, On the Inconsistency of
Admitting Slave-Holders to Communion and Church Membership').
Even the blazing, murderous fury of the 'red states' could not
save and preserve this evil institution, once Americans understood
it as such. Yet to listen to atheists, you would
think the Christian abolitionists never even existed; or, if they did exist, they never
said anything about the Bible, or if they did say anything about the
Bible, no one ever listened or took it to heart, because it
must have been just silly inasmuch as everyone knows the Bible gives
unquestioning and unconditional support to slavery. It must have been
atheists,— did they parachute down from Mars?— who abolished slavery.
While considerations of natural law were not lost on this
constituency, and the Declaration's premise that all men are created
equal also cast its spell, they ultimately cared most about what Jesus wanted from them. These
people deserve to get back their voice; they opposed slavery because
they thought it unchristian, and they had good reason for so
thinking. Their argument is much more than special pleading: it is those who
wish to defend slavery who have a Bible problem, not the abolitionists.
The abolitionists won the debate, in the sense that they
persuaded those who were persuadable that no
Christian should practice slavery. But not all were open to
persuasion. To have an open mind on this or other questions, it
helps to have no vested monetary interest. The majority of the country accepted the conclusion that
slavery was unchristian and set about abolishing it. A minority
insisted otherwise and the issue ended in Civil War. To listen to
atheists today, you would think the pro-slavery side had such
wonderful and convincing arguments, that no rational person
could argue the point, whether the Bible did or did not support
slavery. In reality their defense was farcical, hinging upon wild
leaps like the idea that 'black skin' is the 'mark of Cain.' Where
in the text is it suggested that 'black skin' is the 'mark of Cain'?
And given that the mark was placed on Cain to protect him, why would
this justify mistreatment and abuse if it were?
And realizing that eight persons, belonging to one family, survived
the flood of Noah's day, how is it genetically possible for two of
these persons to be descendents of Cain, yet for none of the others to
be? This is an argument that makes no sense, yet because it is after
a fashion a 'Bible' argument, the atheists solemnly assure us that
the Bible supports slavery.
The credit for ending slavery should go to those who advocated
this proposition. Of this group, some were Quakers or
Unitarians, but most were orthodox evangelical Christians. Not many were
atheists! It is unjust to see slavery used as an argument against
the Bible and Biblical religion, when in historical fact it was fidelity to the
Bible that overturned it.
Though one might like to think that the old pro-slavery
apologetic is as dead as the Dodo, in fact there are still to this day neo-Confederates,— these are
the progressives, who want a renewed and reformed confederacy,— and for that matter paleo-Confederates: "And nothing is clearer than that the New Testament opposes
anything like the strident abolitionism of our country prior to the
War between the States." (Douglas Wilson, 'Black and Tan,' Southern
Slavery and Our Culture Wars, Kindle location 559). Really, the Bible
opposes abolitionism? Who holds the Bible high ground: the abolitionists, or their
This contemporary Reformed author wants to revive the pro-slavery
apologetic of Robert Lewis Dabney, a racist Confederate, however
without going into too much detail lest anyone laugh. This involves,
in a nutshell: Noah's curse of Canaan, which some want to back-date
to Ham, even though Ham in the form of Egypt actually held Israel in
bondage for a time! Though the details don't work out, and it is a
man, albeit a righteous man, who delivers this curse, not God, in a
general sense the actual fulfillment of this curse establishes that bondage might be a form which
the wrath of God against an individual or group might take. This is
certainly true; as Israel itself is threatened in the curses of
"Your sons and your daughters shall be given to another people, and your eyes shall look and fail with longing for them all day long; and there shall be no strength in your hand.
A nation whom you have not known shall eat the fruit of your land and the produce of your labor, and you shall be only oppressed and crushed continually."
It is certainly true that God's judgment against a nation might take this form,
but this does not mean that inflicting such injuries, on human
initiative, is morally benign, any more than murder becomes okay because
God might bring the destroyer against a nation. Assyria was the razor
hired beyond the river: "In the same day the Lord will shave with a
hired razor, with those from beyond the River, with the king of
Assyria. . ." (Isaiah 7:20), but Assyria was also punished for the very
same acts which God thus ordained. The possibility of God's wrath taking
the form of slavery, mass death or arson does not establish the moral
goodness of these actions. God may ordain slavery for Israel, but woe to the
nation which enslaves Israel!
The best way to show the fallacy in this argument is to take the
stronger case, that of murder. This author assumes there is a
pre-existing moral law, higher than God, to which God is subject.
The only things God can do rightly are things which are innocent in
themselves. What does it mean that acts are innocent in themselves?
That we could, on our own initiative, for our own advantage, do the
very same things as God does, and be blameless. Now, certainly God's
judgments are righteous altogether; He is the Judge of the whole
world, the offended party against whom mankind sin, and from His
judicial verdict of execution no appeal is allowed. Does it
therefore follow that we can walk out the door tomorrow morning and
slay with the sword the first human being we come across? This is,
after all, what Dabney wishes to prove: that, because Israel
enslaved some of the surviving Canaanites (whom they were ordered to
extirpate not enslave), then slavery is a good thing, innocent in itself. But
they were ordered to extirpate those people! Can anyone argue that
indiscriminate slaughter is a good thing to do on human initiative,
being innocent in itself?
No law-giver has yet discovered that killing at will is
innocent in itself, not God's own Moses, nor even such of the
heathen as have legislated, including Solon and Hammurabi and Lycurgus. One cannot imagine any state of human
society which would be inhabitable if it were legal to go out and
kill whomever you came across, for what ever reason you felt like
it. It is of course lawful for God to do just that:
"Now see that I, even I, am He, and there is no God besides Me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal;
nor is there any who can deliver from My hand." (Deuteronomy
God can do these things, because He is God! We are not God! If God
curses those who defy His will and brings upon them chastisements
including servitude, even upon Israel, that does not serve to show that
slavery is a good in itself. The reasoning here is that whatever God
does, in whatever form He pours out His wrath, His sentence must always be
of cupcakes and soft pillows, something innocent in itself, because God could not rightly bring harm
upon His enemies. One might as well say, because God can rightly bring
epidemic disease upon a guilty nation by His righteous sentence,
therefore we might as well unleash biological warfare, why not even today.
Do we have the standing or moral authority to make ourselves God over our neighbors,
who are like creatures as ourselves, and destroy the world we did not make? If God denounces captivity against His enemies then He is right, we are wrong. Dabney's thesis is the same as the atheists' familiar plaint: the
same rules apply to Him as to us. No, they do not. He is the source of all moral good, not the
subject of judgment by comparison.
Another argument is the argument of devolution. This
argument was a great favorite of Mohammed ibn Abdallah, the
unlettered Arabian prophet, though he did not really originate it;
an existing group of seekers in Arabia had already formulated this
clever bit of sophistry. They could not comprehend the endless
arguments of the local Jews and the Christians; the Jews said you must
obey the law of Moses, the Christians said you didn't have to; the
Christians said you must believe Jesus is the Son of God if you
would be saved, the Jews said He was a false prophet. They would
listen to these two sides go at each other, and their heads would
spin! But wait: all freely concede that Abraham is in heaven; indeed
the righteous are in Abraham's bosom. But Abraham lived before the
law was given on Mount Sinai, and long before the incarnation!
Therefore, they say, we today who adopt the faith of Abraham will surely also
be saved. Thus they hope to dispense with doctrines like the Trinity
which they do not understand (these people assumed that Abraham did not
believe the doctrine of the Trinity, but consider the visitation at
Mamre). The question before us therefore
becomes, does the public at large have a standing invitation to hop
onto this time travel machine, or not? Is it permissible to shuck off subsequent
revelation, if we're on the 'subsequent' side of it?
The abolitionists said, slavery is not Christian. The slave-owners
replied, well maybe it's not Christian. . .but it sure is patriarchal! (One
of the Bible's 'pro-slavery' texts, believe it or not, is 'Honor thy
father and mother'. . .why? Well, because slaves are kind of like
children, see. . .) Abraham was a slave-owner:
"Now when Abram heard that his brother was taken captive, he armed his three hundred and eighteen trained servants who were born in his own house, and went in pursuit as far as Dan."
He was also the friend of God. Therefore, runs the argument, slave-owning is morally benign.
And we haven't even got started on polygamy! Some of the Rabbis
claim that Abraham obeyed the Mosaic law, as if by natural
inspiration; but Paul points out he lived before the law was
given, "And this I say, that the law, which was four hundred and
thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed
before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect." (Galatians 3:17).
Paul, seeking to establish that salvation is by faith, goes back to the
patriarchs, who cannot have been saved by law-keeping: they didn't have the law!
Four hundred thirty years is mentioned in Exodus 12:40 as the
time of Israel's sojourning in Egypt. If, however, the law came
four hundred and thirty years after the patriarchs, the same
cannot be said about us! The time arrow runs only one way; we
know God's mind on slavery because He has revealed it to us,
whether Abraham understood His will on this subject or not. We
know He wants us to break every yoke, because He has said so. This approach
does not so much take the throne out from under King Jesus, but takes
away His podium; our King cannot teach, He cannot legislate for His
people, because if He teaches Abraham's progeny anything Abraham did not
already know, we convict Him as a liar and innovator!
In fairness to Abraham, there were obvious differences between
his practice of slavery and that of the Southern slave-owners. First
of all, he was not reluctant to put arms in their hands, a measure
the Confederacy adopted only in final desperation as the walls were
falling in. Dabney explains,
Moreover, before the birth of the child of promise, Abraham's appointed heir was
"one born in my house," i.e., a slave:
“But Abram said, 'Lord GOD, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?' Then Abram said,
'Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir!'”
No doubt lots and lots of slaves in the American Southland inherited the plantation.
Whether Abraham did, or did not, by natural intuition of a law not yet given, free his
slaves every Sabbatical year, cannot now be known.
The patriarchs are 'Exhibit A' in the case that salvation is by
faith, not by works, and this is why Paul went back to them in the
letter to Romans. Jacob was a schemer; is it good to be a schemer? Sometimes
it seems as though Robert Lewis Dabney, the great Southern defender
of slavery, realizes that it is not good to be a schemer:
"Esau appears to have been an open, hard-mouthed,
profane person. Jacob, by nature, a mean, sneaking hypocrite and
supplanter. Probably God judged their personal merits as I do, that
personally Jacob was a more detestable sinner than Esau. . .But his
omniscience saw a separate independent reason why it was wisest to
make the worse man the object of his infinite mercy, while leaving
the other to his own profane choice." (The Five Points of Calvinism,
by Robert Lewis Dabney, Kindle location 363).
Follow the logic: Jacob, a "sneaking hypocrite," was a
"detestable sinner;" we do not conclude from his case that it is
okay to treat people in any under-handed manner, though we know that Jacob is saved
just as surely as we know this of Abraham; however, we do
conclude from Abraham's case that it is okay to keep slaves. The double
standard in this case is glaring; when Abraham, or any of the other
patriarchs, did something the pro-slavers do not like, why then he's a
"Polygamy is recorded of Abraham, Jacob, Gideon, Elkanah,
David, Solomon; but so are other sins of several of these; and, as
every intelligent reader knows, the truthful narrative of holy writ
as often discloses the sins of good men for our warning, as their
virtues for our imitation." (Robert Lewis Dabney, Systematic
Theology, Chapter 32, Kindle location 14310).
No kidding! To make the argument that, anything the patriarchs did must be good
and holy, because they are saved (as they certainly are, they followed God
with a whole heart, albeit with imperfect knowledge), takes away
from God any ability to offer subsequent instruction to mankind or to expect to have it heeded.
By the testimony of His own word, God grades on a curve: "And the
times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men
every where to repent:. . ." (Acts 17:30). Ignorance is, before a
holy God, a legitimate excuse; an excuse we may not offer, who live
after the law came down at Sinai, and after the gospel proclamation. To say,
God may not reveal it, if Abraham did not already know it, binds the
divine hands; with what cords? Abraham lived in a rough world, and did the
best he could; but some of the things he did to get by, like
slavery, polygamy, concubinage, and deception, are sub-optimal.
Bible provisions regulating working hours and
conditions which might be relevant in this connection include a
mandatory weekly day off:
"‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.
Six days you shall labor and do all your work,
but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. And remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day."