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

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A discussion about Biblical slavery

Someone wrote something criticising the God of the Bible for allowing or even endorsing slavery in the Bible, and this is what I wrote in response (which I've edited a bit), which I thought might be worth sharing:

I want to point out that there are some 'ameliorating' factors here.

One is that there was no social security system in Israel back then, apart from having a large family. In the West, we're used to the idea that even if we have no job and no family to live with that everything will still end up OK. But in the ancient near east, this situation may lead to our death. So suppose someone was out of work for a while in ancient Israel, without family or social security, then they would probably starve. So if God allows people to sell themselves into slavery, then there is a kind of social security in that for people who can't get a job as long as the slaves have lots of rights securing their protection from harm etc.

Actually, there weren't supposed to be any poor people in Israel at all because of God's very generous welfare laws (Deu 15:4, Lev 25:35-7). But there has to be a backup plan in case that fails.

Slavery for Israelites was supposed to be voluntary and they are supposed to be treated as "hired workers", i.e. like employees (Lev 25:39-42). They are supposed to work for a maximum of 7 years, and at the end of that time to be released with a generous supply of goods (Deu 15:12-14).

Note though that slaves who were sold to Israel from other nations (in the international slave trade) did not have the right to be released every seven years. But we read in Deut 23:15-6:

"If a slave has taken refuge with you, do not hand him over to his master. 16 Let him live among you wherever he likes and in whatever town he chooses. Do not oppress him."

Which means that slaves can choose to be free by running away (but not everyone agrees with this interpretation, see here).

Note also that God doesn't endorse the slave trade, because the Bible condemns 'men stealing', i.e. kidnapping to sell into slavery, in 1 Tim 1:9-10.

In terms of protections for slaves, they got to have a Sabbath (Ex 23:12), and in every seventh year slaves had the same right as wealthy people, free people, etc. to the harvest of that year (Lev 25:6).

Moreover, if you killed any slave, then you yourself would be killed under the 'life for life' clause (Gen 9:6). If you inflicted any permanent marks or injuries on a slave, then the slave had to be set free to compensate (Ex 21:26-7). If a slave owner beats a slave without inflicting permanent marks or injuries, but leaves them bedridden for more than two days, laws would apply that punish the owner (Ex 21:23-7). Now, this is still not acceptable, but it's quite different to American slavery.

One view on why slavery exists in the Old Testament is that there is a good reason to have something to provide social security and God compromised with the Israelites so that turned out to be slavery rather than e.g. an income tax and pension system, like in modern developed economies. The Bible says that God let Moses compromise regarding divorce and polygamy (Matt 19:7-8), so God may have allowed this with slavery as well but if and only if it has a strong social security benefit where there is no other way to provide social security.

A good verse on slavery from the New Testament (apart from the one that condemns 'men stealing' for the slave trade in 1 Tim 1:9-10) in the Bible comes from Eph 6:9 which destroys the institution of slavery without actually making it illegal. In Eph 6:9 slave masters are told to "obey [their] [slaves] with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you, but like slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart. Serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord, not men" when read in conjunction with Eph 6:5-7. This isn't just telling slave owners to be nice to slaves, but is telling them to serve their slaves like someone might serve God, or like people in marriage should serve each other. Doing this would create a pretty weird dynamic in a slave-owning house and would make the institution ridiculous.

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Anonymous Grass said...

Merry Christmas Will. I stumbled upon your blog in the process of wondering whether any Christian philosophy takes place in Australia at all. It's good to find your blog.

Out of curiosity, what branch of philosophy are you studying? At what level?

Hopefully I'll be able to provide some meaningful comments on your posts in the future.

Blogger Will G said...

Merry Christmas, Grass. Thanks!

The title of my blog is, I guess, a bit misleading because I finished studying formally at university in 2009, when I finished an honours Bachelors degree majoring in philosophy (and political science). Since then I worked and studied a bit more, and next year I will try to get into a course that will allow me to teach.

When I was at uni I didn't study much philosophy of religion, none actually apart from in first year. I took a broad range of philosophy subjects, trying not to take the same topic twice, but fortunately they often related to my interest in philosophy of religion and Christianity. Honours level philosophy would have been equivalent to Masters level, before honours year it would have been undergrad level.

Anonymous Grass said...

Well, in the field of philosophy we are forever students.

In case you've assumed otherwise, I haven't actually had any proper training in philosophy. I probably won't get any for a while either, considering that I'll be commencing my study in medicine in a few weeks time. I read essays every now and then (currently trying to go through "The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology" - it is so tough for a layman like me); otherwise I'm a mere Christian with a truck-load of doubts and questions towards the faith I am raised up with, sometimes at the edge of deconversion.

Are you hoping to teach at school level or university level?

Anonymous Grass said...

By the way, one of your links, "Ex-atheists.com" appears to be an useless commercial site...perhaps the original website doesn't exist anymore?

Blogger Will G said...

Medicine sounds good...

Doubts eh? Ugh. I've had that and it's not pleasant. But there's light at the end of the tunnel if you persist in your faith long enough. I found the Christian Thinktank (linked to in sidebar) pretty good when I was doubting a lot. It would be awesome if my writings address your doubts, because I started this site to address mine (in 2005).

I'll take down the link to ex-atheists. It's a shame it's not up anymore.


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