Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Slavery in the Old Testament laws

Something we need to remember regarding the Old Testament laws is that they involved a compromise:

Matt 19:8: Jesus replied, "Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended."

It would not be surprising if a lot of laws in the Old Testament were similar (for example regarding its acceptance of polygamy versus Jesus' monogamy view). I want to look here at this possibility regarding slavery laws.

Slavery is wrong, but it would have been good for God to make laws related to slavery if a) slavery was going to happen whether God wanted it to or not, because we're talking about ancient Near East cultures, and b) this was the only way of making sure it happened in a relatively just way.

I think this is the thinking behind the Old Testament laws on slavery. So with that said, let's look at whether b) is correct. Is it believable that the Old Testament slavery laws tried to control the evils of slavery, by making them more just than they would otherwise have been?

I've put some helpful quotes here from a really good article on this from Glenn Miller's Christian-thinktank:

"The 'slavery' of the OT was essentially designed to serve the poor!":

Lev 25:35-43: "If one of your countrymen becomes poor and is unable to support himself among you, help him as you would an alien or a temporary resident, so he can continue to live among you. 36 Do not take interest of any kind from him, but fear your God, so that your countryman may continue to live among you. 37 You must not lend him money at interest or sell him food at a profit. 38 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan and to be your God."

39 "If one of your countrymen becomes poor among you and sells himself to you, do not make him work as a slave. 40 He is to be treated as a hired worker or a temporary resident among you; he is to work for you until the Year of Jubilee. 41 Then he and his children are to be released, and he will go back to his own clan and to the property of his forefathers. 42 Because the Israelites are my servants, whom I brought out of Egypt, they must not be sold as slaves. 43 Do not rule over them ruthlessly, but fear your God."

"If a fellow Hebrew, a man or a woman, sells himself to you and serves you six years, in the seventh year you must let him go free." (Deut 15.12) Although this doesn't apply to foreign slaves.

"The Mosaic law contains numerous initiatives designed to preclude someone having to consider voluntary slavery as an option":

"Pentateuchal prescriptions are meant to mitigate the causes of and need for such bondservice. Resident aliens, orphans and widows are not to be abused, oppressed or deprived of justice. When money is lent to the poor, they are not to be charged interest." "There were not supposed to be any poor in Israel at all!"

"But God is a realist (Deut 15.11!); hence He made a wide range of provisions in the Law for the poor [one of which is slavery as a form of debt relief]"

So slavery in Old Testament law was meant to serve the poor, rather than serve the rich.

Some other key verses:

"Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD." (Lev 19:18). The word 'neighbour' should apply to Israelite and foreign slaves, so slaves should be loved if someone wants to honour every part of the Old Testament law.

"However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you, if only you fully obey the LORD your God and are careful to follow all these commands I am giving you today." (Deut 15.4). By implication all slaves should have decent living standards.

"If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property." (Ex 21:20-1, NIV). "If a man hits a manservant or maidservant in the eye and destroys it, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the eye. And if he knocks out the tooth of a manservant or maidservant, he must let the servant go free to compensate for the tooth". (Ex 21:26-27).

OK, so this doesn't sound too good in places. First of all, it allows the beating slaves as long as you don't injure them so badly they can't get up in two days, and as long as you don't permanently injure them in some way. But it's not as bad as it could be. Apparently 'he must be punished' means that the master is actually executed if the slave dies under the "life for life" clause. Moreover, the rule for being beaten is not that different from what applies to free Israelites:

Ex 21:18-9: "If men quarrel and one hits the other with a stone or with his fist and he does not die but is confined to bed, the one who struck the blow will not be held responsible if the other gets up and walks around outside with his staff; however, he must pay the injured man for the loss of his time and see that he is completely healed."

This is a lot more humane than other societies with slavery, which shows that God possibly acted to bring about a 'moderating' of slavery laws:

"An owner could kill his slave with impunity in Homeric Greece, ancient India, the Roman Republic, Han China, Islamic countries, Anglo-Saxon England, medieval Russia, and many parts of the American South before 1830…That was not the case in other societies. The Hebrews, the Athenians, and the Romans under the principate restricted the right of slave owners to kill their human chattel."

Secondly, isn't it bad that it says slaves are property? Glenn quotes: "Freedom in the ancient Near East was a relative, not an absolute state, as the ambiguity of the term for "slave" in all the region's languages illustrates. "Slave" could be used to refer to a subordinate in the social ladder. Thus the subjects of a king were called his "slaves," even though they were free citizens. The king himself, if a vassal, was the "slave" of his emperor; kings, emperors, and commoners alike were "slaves" of the gods. Even a social inferior, when addressing a social superior, referred to himself out of politeness as "your slave." There were, moreover, a plethora of servile conditions that were not regarded as slavery, such as son, daughter, wife, serf, or human pledge."

So saying that slaves are property wasn't such a huge thing in ancient Near East society as it would be now if someone said you were their property.

We can see God's ultimately honourable intent behind the Old Testament slavery laws elsewhere:

"The entire seventh year of the planting cycle was dedicated to the poor (and servants [slaves])!":

"For six years you are to sow your fields and harvest the crops, 11 but during the seventh year let the land lie unplowed and unused. Then the poor among your people may get food from it, and the wild animals may eat what they leave. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove." (Ex 23.10) "Whatever the land yields during the sabbath year will be food for you -- for yourself, your manservant and maidservant, and the hired worker and temporary resident who live among you," (Lev 25.6)

"When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. 10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God" (Lev 19:10).

So I think one can establish, as I said at the beginning of this essay, that it was a good thing for God to make the Old Testament slavery laws as long as a) because of the hardness of people's hearts there was going to be slavery whether God wanted there to be or not, and b) this was the only way to control the evils of slavery so that it happened in a relatively just way. B) seems to be the case from the points made above.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well reasoned...I especially appreciate the point that "slavery in Old Testament law was meant to serve the poor, rather than serve the rich." I think it's right and it gives OT slavery a radically different character than, for instance, early American slavery.

Blogger Will G said...



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