Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Slavery in the Bible

Although the Bible discusses slavery on many occasions, it never actually condemns the practice. Christians sometimes claim that slavery in the Bible was more like servanthood than what we think of as slavery, but this is simply untrue. Servants are not held against their will, they are not property, and they most certainly are not beaten:
"Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property." (Exodus 21:20-21, NIV)
Under Old Testament law, masters were allowed to beat their slaves. Viciously. Ruthlessly. The slave could be collapsed on the ground, covered in welts and bruises, moaning in agony... but it didn't matter, as long as they recovered within two days. And here's the kicker: as brutal and horrible as such a beating would be, the NIV (which sometimes tries to "soften" unpleasant passages) is actually the best-case translation. Many of the more literal translations instead say that if the slave remains alive for a day or two, there is no punishment. In other words, the master would get off scot-free as long as the slave clung to life for one or two days before dying.

Christians rationalize this system by claiming that God was "working within" an imperfect Israelite culture. They apparently forget that God is supposedly omnipotent and could easily have outlawed such a practice if he wanted to. He imposed hundreds of other laws in the Old Testament, whether the Israelites wanted them or not. He God could easily have done the same with the abolition of slavery, and certainly didn't need to let the extreme cruelty described in these passages go unpunished.

Christians also try to justify OT slavery by claiming that it was only a temporary condition, but this applied only to non-Israelites:
"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." (Leviticus 25:44-46)
And while Israelites can normally be enslaved for "only" 6 years, OT law also provides a loophole that lets Israelites enslave each other permanently. Exodus 21:2-6 says that if a master gives his slave a wife, who then bears that slave's children, the wife and kids belong to the master. If the slave wants to stay with them, he must become a slave for life. The master is essentially holding the slave's family for ransom, and all of this is blithely endorsed by the Bible.

Jesus also implicitly endorses slavery by discussing its cruelty without condemning it. He says in a parable: "And that servant who knew his master's will, and did not prepare himself or do according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes." (Luke 12:47) While the morality of slavery was the not the point of the parable, the fact that he let this cruelty pass without comment speaks volumes. And then there is this passage:
"Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh. For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God." (I Peter 2:18-20)
In other words, the slaves get no credit for enduring beatings if the punishment is "justified"—and regardless of how harsh their masters are, slaves should not try to escape from them. Imagine how slaves in the old South and elsewhere in the Americas felt when they heard this passage (and they probably would have; Christian slave owners often used the Bible to justify slavery). Many slaves who would otherwise have escaped probably continued to suffer due to the influence of a bronze-age book.

Bible says: If this slave is being beaten for his faults... well, that's just to be expected.
But either way, he should lay there submissively for the sake of pleasing God.
In summary, biblical slaves are nothing like servants. According to the Bible they are property, they can be held for life against their will, they can be violently beaten, and they are not to run away even when they are mistreated. This is not a matter of differing cultures, and apologetic claims to this effect would be hilarious if they weren't so despicable. Slavery is undeniably a grossly immoral practice, sanctioned and regulated by the Bible.

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