View Full Version : Why Slavery?

01-29-2010, 08:04 PM
This has been bothering me for a while. Please help understand this.

The verses below are just a few verses from the bible which talks about slavery. It seems like the bible is telling Israelites to treat slaves who are foreigners different then Israelite slaves. So my question is why did God allow slavery or is this another curse man brought on himself.

Leviticus 25:44-46
Exodus 21:2-6
Exodus 21:7-11
Exodus 21:20-21

01-29-2010, 08:10 PM
Thanks for the inquiry Patrick. I will attempt to round it off with general overview. Slavery was a fact of life throughout history. Regulations for slavery should not be confused with the approval of slavery. The existence of regulations for specific behaviors is not the same as approval for those behaviors.

Within all the periods of antiquity, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Hittite, Persian, and other Oriental rulers carried away great masses of captives from their victorious battles. But only an insignificant part of them was turned into slaves; all the others were settled on the land as palace and temple serfs. there were no legal or ethical norms preventing these prisoners from being turned into slaves. But this happened in a negligible percentage of cases, while the overwhelming majority were settled in places specially set aside for them, paid royal taxes, and carried out obligations, including military service. Captured people became loyal citizens, thus part of the nature of building empires. Any person schooled in ancient history can testify to this.

Many incorrectly assume that the slavery in the Old Testament was like the modern western slavery of the 1700's and 1800's. Western slavery primarily benefited the rich, but Israelite slavery primarily benefited the poor. Slavery was almost always voluntary...the basic types of "enslavement" are known as self-sale, family sale, and indentured servitude. These relationships were usually initiated by the slave as a remedy for poverty. Poor families would sometimes sell their children as slaves. Were this situation like modern western slavery, we could justifiably condemn the practice...but the reality is that this was of great benefit to the child.

Slavery contracts often emphasized that the slave agreed to work in exchange for economic security and personal protection. While modern western slaves were forbidden to own property of any kind, Hebrew slaves could take part in business, borrow money, and buy their own freedom...in other words, they were free to "buy out" the contract they'd made. They were also able to own property, pay betrothal monies, and pay civic fines. Slaves could appear in court as witnesses, plaintiffs, and defendants.

Many ancient near-eastern slaves were able to buy time off as well, paying a fixed fee called a "quitrent" to their owner. This bought them a year where they didn't have to work. The amount paid was roughly equivalent to the average annual pay of a hired worker, regardless of whether he was free or a slave.

While history testifies that abuse certainly must have occurred, the Old Testament forbids the cruel treatment of slaves. In fact, slaves were afforded the same legal protections as free citizens. Leviticus 25 gives several instructions to Israelites not mistreat slaves. Instead of being cruel and inhumane, the relationships between slaves and owners have been documented to have been, at the very least, respectful. Many slaves were treated much like members of the owner's family.

The personal rights and responsibilities of a slave were clearly more important than the owner's "property rights". Slavery was generally an economic transaction and not a human rights violation. As but one example, slaves were forbidden to work on the Sabbath and were expected to take part in social celebrations...just like their masters. It's clear that the slavery in the Old Testament wasn't like modern western slavery at all. Obviously, these slaves received great benefits from making such arrangements.

If a master beat a slave and the slave died, he was to be killed. If he caused any sort of permanent damage to the slave, the slave was to be set free immediately. The concept of "permanent damage" included such things as knocking out a tooth. This was a stark contrast to other near-eastern cultures, where a master was allowed to put out the eyes of his slaves with no consequences. An Israelite master was bound by an incentive to avoid striking a slave in the face, which was considered a civic wrong.

Misinformed agnostics and atheist often misuse Exodus 20:20-21 as evidence that it was okay with God to harm slaves. On the surface, the passage appears as though a master could get away with mistreating a slave. However, when a person studies the scripture in proper context of the culture, it's clear that this wasn't considered mistreatment. In fact, this verse shows that slaves were treated in much the same way as free citizens.

Being beaten by a rod was a common punishment. "Beating" does not imply "bludgeoning" as turning skin into pulp, but as striking across the skin as a whip. The community elders employed the rod to punish wrongdoers, and fathers applied the rod to rebellious older sons. Using a rod to discipline a slave would be common, if not customary as it would be to discipline one's own child. The punishments for harming slaves and free men were equivalent. In my upbringing, it was the belt verses the rod :)

A free citizen who was temporarily harmed would be compensated for lost work time and medical bills, but the slave would not. The difference was simply economic: the owner was financially responsible for the slave, so he absorbed the loss of work time and made sure the slave was healed instead of paying them cash.

While the Pentateuch clearly lists guidelines regarding slavery, it's clear that the type of slavery involved was overwhelmingly voluntary. Most relationships were either initiated by the slave or as an arrangement by the family of the slave as an economic and social benefit. Mistreatment of a slave was forbidden, and slaves were afforded most of the same freedoms and responsibilities as free citizens. The charge that the Bible condones slavery, as the modern western world understands it, is a position based on appearance, not fact.