Legitimate Biblical Slavery?

Some Christian folks in the West like to act as if slavery was the biggest sin in the history of mankind, and that the USA, which, according to them, was “built on slavery”, stands as Criminal #1. Or maybe Criminal #2, since Adolph takes up place #1. It’s interesting to watch them squirm when atheists point out that the Bible allowed slavery. Most Christians immediately dismiss it as “indentured servitude”, and for the most part, that’s exactly what we see for Hebrews regarding their brothers. But that’s not what we see for Hebrews regarding foreigners. The simple fact of the matter is that the Bible did allow for slavery. Lev 25:39-46 shows rules for both indentured servants and slaves that are kept as possessions “forever”.

But before we get all upset and throw our Bibles out the window, we need to remind ourselves that the American history of slavery is not the only form of slavery in human history. Furthermore, we need to realize that slavery among the Hebrews in Bible times did not resemble American slavery. Not even close.

So here are a few points worth noting if we wish for the Bible to guide our thoughts on the question of Biblical slavery:

  • In the Bible, all forms of kidnapping are a capital offense. Anyone found with a kidnapped person was subject to execution. So much for the American version of slavery, right? (Exod 21:16) More on this later.
  • There are several ways that a person in Biblical times could become a slave. This applies to OT, NT and ancient foreign countries:
    • Rack up debt they could never (ever) pay off;
    • Commit homicide. The criminal’s life is forfeit (Gen 9:5-6). The family patriarch (aka, kinsman redeemer) gets to decide whether to execute the criminal or show mercy and have the person become a life-long slave. (Resist the urge to think it’s cruel. If you were guilty of a crime, and you were given the choice, would you choose death or slavery?);
    • Be an aggressor prisoner of war. Should the immoral invading army lose the battle they initiated, the lives of the soldiers are forfeit. They have no business invading and conquering other lands, so injured parties on the winning side may execute them if they see fit (Heb 7:1 ESV, KJV). Or set them free (2 Kings 6:22). Or make them into life-long slaves (Josh 9:23, actually does apply. But there are many other references as well);
    • Be born to a legal slave (This is not definite, but probable. See Lev 25:46)
  • Regardless of how a person came to be a slave, he is not to be treated cruelly (Exod 21:26-27). Remember that next time you think of American slavery. And be sure to bear in mind that not all American slave masters were cruel. Some slaves actually loved their masters. Read “Slave Narratives”.
  • If a cruelly-treated slave runs away, he is not to be returned (Deut 23:15-16. Although cruelty is not mentioned here per se, it has always been understood that way by Jewish rabbis. Also, bear in mind that the ancient threshold of “cruelty” is quite different from today’s. See what Jesus condoned in Luke 12:45-48. Granted, it’s a parable, but since whippings were the norm for His day, His audience would have assumed He, like Proverbs, was fine with this norm.)
  • We need to remember that Paul returned Onesimus, a runaway slave, to his master Philemon (Philemon 1:12-16). Sure, Philemon was to treat him as a brother, but folks – don’t miss the forest for the tree: Paul was sending him back! And Onesimus obeyed! As far as Paul was concerned, Onesimus was not free to go his way; he legally and morally belonged to Philemon. If Paul is being Biblical, we would conclude that Paul did not believe Philemon was cruel to Onesimus, and that Paul did not think slavery, ipso facto, was immoral.

Back to American slavery.

So, with all of that in mind, pretty much all of the slaves on the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade don’t qualify as legitimate slaves. At least, not by Biblical standards.

But there’s a reason I said “pretty much all” and not “all”.

I’ve heard Ghanian and Nigerian historians say that many of their ancestors were prisoners of war in Africa. If these prisoners were instigators of a war they lost, then it was Biblically (and therefore morally) permissible for Africans to sell these particular slaves to whomever they wished, including to Europeans. But surely all of these prisoners weren’t instigators of war. And I don’t know how anyone would go about quantifying these numbers to determine which prisoners were guilty of instigating warfare, and which were caught by warmongering instigators. Nonetheless, I think it’s interesting that African professors teach that many slaves were prisoners of war.

And although we know many American masters were cruel to their slaves, if we read “Slave’s Narratives,” a 1930s compilation of freed slaves’ narratives about life as a slave, we see that one-size does not fit all: more than a few slaves loved their masters and had good relationships with their masters. Some of them even claimed that life was better when they were slaves. (See Exodus 21:5-6)

So one could make the argument that some of the American slaves did indeed qualify as Biblically legitimate slaves.

But who wants to dig through all the lost data and history to find out which were legit and which were not?

Even if the data were available (and it’s not) I don’t care to dig through it.

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