What comes to mind when you think of the word slavery?
Plantations. Back-breaking labor under the hot sun. Harriet Tubman. Whippings. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Slave auctions. The Civil War. Abraham Lincoln and the Proclamation of Emancipation. Frederick Douglass. Chattel. Slave ships. Gone with the Wind. The Underground Railroad.
The word slave is loaded with pictures of anguish and horror. One hundred years has not dimmed the bitterness and depravity of the history of slavery in America. The Old Testament gives directions to the Hebrews on what to do with servants. These passages appear to sanction slavery as practiced in early America.
In a book by the Rev. Theodore D. Weld, The Bible Against Slavery (1837), we find that all is not what it seems. In his book, Theodore plainly lists the many ways the servants (slaves) of the Old Testament were completely unlike the slaves of the Old South. Let me summarize some of those differences here. We’ll see how words used in one age don’t mean the same in a different age and culture.
Let’s first define our term. As defined in the Louisiana civic code, “A slave is one who is in the power of a master to whom he belongs; the master may sell him, dispose of his person, his industry, and his labor; he can do nothing, possess nothing, nor acquire anything, but what must belong to his master.” The question we must ask is, “Does the Bible sanction that definition of slavery?”
Immediately after The Ten Commandments were given in chapter twenty of Exodus, God declares, “He who kidnaps a man and sells him, or if he is found in his hand, shall surely be put to death” (Exodus 21:16). In contrast, if oxen were stolen and killed, the thief would be required to pay the owner back with five oxen. Capital punishment for a man’s death shows the enormity of the crime in God’s eyes. (See also Leviticus 24:17-18, 21). How different from the slave traders of old who kidnapped black men in their country and brought them here to sell.
Remember that God’s great purpose for raising up Moses was to lead the children of Abraham out of Egypt – out of slavery! – to a place of freedom.
The Bible speaks of men who “bought” their wives. Yet none of these stories showed that what was bought became chattel with no rights of their own. The servants who were bought were also held in esteem, had homes and families of their own, and even had servants of their own. When servants were bought, they were paid for their services in advance. It was their services that were bought, not their bodies and souls.
Where the Old South slaves worked from morning to evening day after day, the servants of the Old Testament had the same vacation days and holidays as their masters. Adding up the Sabbath days, feast days, holy days, and other occasions, the law provided that master and servant work only about half of each year!
To buy is often used with the meaning to get. We’ve used the word in the same way. Benedict Arnold was bought by British gold, yet no one ever called him a slave. “Every man has his price” at which he may depart his scruples, but we still don’t consider him slave property.
Consider other traits of the Old Testament servants that distinguish them from being property of their masters.
- The Hebrew servant could compel his master to keep him (Deuteronomy 15:12-13).
- The servants entered into covenant with God (Deuteronomy 29:10-13).
- They were guests at family and national festivals (Deuteronomy 12:12).
- The foreign servants were protected under law equally with other members of the community (Deuteronomy 1:16, 19).
- The law required that the Hebrews love the stranger, including their foreign servants (Leviticus 19:34).
- Servants frequently became heirs of their master’s property (1 Chronicles 2:34-35, Matthew 21:38, Proverbs 17:2).
- They were required to be paid (Jeremiah 22:13).
- OT servants were not sold. If they were caught with wrongdoing, they were let go, not sold. We see in Galatians 4:1 that a master’s own firstborn child was regarded no more highly than a servant. King Saul called David “my servant,” yet David ate at Saul’s table, married his daughter, and remained close to Saul’s heir apparent, Jonathan.
- The OT servants had many opportunities to escape their alleged slavery as the family males went to several required feasts several times a year. Abraham had over three hundred servants – how could his family keep watch over them all? Did he and his wife take turns throughout the day riding shotgun? The servants were hired hands.
- The servants in ancient Israel were not chattel, but in many cases they were poor Hebrews who offered to work for their neighbors for payment. Some were thieves who could not repay their vicitims. Some servants were chosen by the king to serve him. Still others were inhabitants of a city who chose to surrender rather than fight to the death. In no case did God condone buying and selling of human beings as in the Old South.
- In some instances, the Old Testament regulates slavery of non-Israelite foreigners. In those cases, God is not condoning slavery, but seeking to control it. Regulation does not mean acceptance – God gives rules regarding divorce, yet he hates divorce (Malachi 2:16). Also, though God gave many laws regarding animal sacrifice (Leviticus 1-5), yet God “did not desire” them (Hebrews 10:5).
A few years ago, the lawmakers in California were seeking ways to control the illegal immigration problem in the state. One idea floated was to grant driver’s licenses to illegal aliens. Upon the attendant hue and cry, the idea was shelved – because it would appear to grant legal status to the illegal community. This is the same charge people lay on God for regulating slavery!
Lastly, these regulations regarding slaves were codified into the law. When a poor Hebrew offered his services to a neighbor in exchange for pay, he and the master knew in advance the rules and stipulations of the arrangement. The Hebrew was voluntarily placing himself in this position. How different then the slavery in the Old South, when slaves were kidnapped from their lands and violently treated as each master saw fit.
What Do You Think?
a. Were the slaves of the Old South required to be paid? If the servants of the OT were, how does that affect their status in your mind?
b. Were the slave owners of the Old South required to love their slaves? If the master in ancient Israel disobeyed this law, would you think it was God’s fault for including the law or the lawbreaker’s fault for breaking the law?
c. If God delivered the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, does God still sanction slavery for modern times?
Weld, Rev. Theodore D., The Bible Against Slavery (1837). Book posted online at http://medicolegal.tripod.com/weldbas.htm