Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Ten Questions: Number Five

Question #5: Why is God such a huge proponent of slavery in the Bible? Look up these Bible verses:

    - Exodus 21:20-21 – God says that it is OK to own slaves, and it is also OK to beat them.

    - Colossians 3:22-24 – Slaves need to obey their masters.

    - Ephesians 6:5 – Slaves need to obey their masters just as they would obey Christ.

    - 1 Peter 2:18 – Slaves need to obey their masters, even if their masters are harsh .

And so on…

And why do all intelligent people abhor slavery and make it completely illegal? You have to come up with some kind of weird rationalization to explain it.


I'll divide the slave question into Old and New Testament responses.

OLD TESTAMENT

First of all, remember that the law concerning slaves falls into the category of civil law, discussed in a previous post. Civil law, as all politics must be, is the art of the possible. This is why slavery in the Old Testament was the best of bad options:

Our view of slavery is strongly tainted by our society's experience with slavery, in which it was a greed-driven, racist, and permanent situation. Slavery in the Old Testament was considerably different:

Old Testament slaves came from three places: war, purchase, and poverty.

First, what do you do with prisoners in Ancient Near East warfare? We didn't have that wonderful invention called the Geneva conventions in the Old Testament. If prisoners were taken, they wouldn't be returned at the end of the war, because returning a prisoner was essentially rearming a defeated enemy. Returning prisoners was suicide.

Prisoners of war couldn't be simply kept in P.O.W. camps endlessly, mainly because of the grinding poverty of rain-fed agriculture economies. During good periods, they might have been able to support a few non-working mouths, but during the all-to-frequent lean periods, feeding prisoners would mean more would have to starve. Keeping prisoners was suicide.

Prisoners of war couldn't simply be released into the wilderness, as they would quickly be picked up by the roving bands and slave traders of the region. They would become slaves anyway, and slaves in conditions far worse than that of the Jews, who, having been slaves, had strong taboos against mistreating them. Releasing them made the prisoner's situation worse.

In short, the best possible solution for the ancient state of Israel was to keep P.O.W.s as slaves. As slaves, they would receive the best treatment available, while not endangering the Jews again.


Second, the slaves which were purchased were purchased from other nations, i.e., they were already slaves. Not only were they already slaves, but under the Jews their period of slavery was limited. Slaves were permitted to purchase their freedom. If they did not purchase their freedom, they would be released from slavery anyway at the year of the Jubilee (See Leviticus 25). In short, slavery by the Jews was a step up (especially considering the better treatment received). Slaves purchased from others were released from the burden of perpetual slavery which they had under their previous masters.


Third, poverty was a source of slaves and a cause of slaves. In modern societies, those who have been economically dislocated have a social safety net to fall back on. There are unemployment benefits, welfare, foodstamps, etc. Impoverished societies have none of those. The alternative to slavery was literal starvation. In this situation, slavery was essentially charity. The "owner" took on the risk of supporting the slave for a set period of time--until the year of the Jubilee--and could not sell such a slave to another. Furthermore, at the year of the Jubilee, the property the slave had sold prior to becoming a slave would be returned, so there was no perpetual poverty, and thus no perpetual slavery.

Therefore, in the Old Testament, slavery by the Jews was a practical solution to problems of war and poverty. It was also regulated to make slavery as benign an institution as possible. In short, it was the best of the bad options.


NEW TESTAMENT

The New Testament verses cited are very practical advice. Go to wikipedia's "slave rebellions" page and read what happens. Almost always, the slave rebellion begins quite well, with the slaves scoring a few quick victories while the owners mobilize their military forces, and then the slaves are slaughtered until they stop fighting. The condition of the remaining slaves is always much worse than before the rebellion. Very few slave rebellions are successful. Given what happened to the rebels under Spartacus once he was defeated, not challenging the Roman institution directly was very wise.

However, if you read the context of the verses cited, the authors are attempting another solution to slavery. The slaves are to be the best slaves they can be--slaves so good that the masters cannot help but notice that these slaves are the best of the bunch. It is an attempt for the slaves to witness to their masters. For if the masters converted, and followed the advice given in Scripture (Timothy 1:10, Philemon 16, and Ephesians 6:9), slavery would rapidly fall away. The Ephesians 6:9 verse is particularly interesting: masters are not even supposed to "threaten" slaves. The other verses explain that, even if the masters never notice, and slavery is not abolished by conversion, God will reward those slaves for their actions.

So what is God such a huge proponent of in the New Testament? He's a proponent of not being slaughtered. He advocates love. He advocates moral persuasion. He is attempting to end slavery in the minds of men.


And why do all intelligent people abhor slavery and make it completely illegal?

Why thank you. As you might remember, the Abolitionists were almost always religious, and very often religious leaders, citing Scripture to support their case that slavery was evil.

Back to the Ten Questions

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3 Comments:

Blogger Noumenon said...

I actually did go to Wikipedia's slave rebellions page. The only uprisings that get any text are the successful ones like Touissaint L'Ouverture in Haiti and Cimarrones in Panama. After Spartacus, the living conditions of Roman slaves improved, if those of the rebels themselves did not.

Why's God so much less pragmatic in the New Testament? Why not tell the Israelites to end slavery in the minds of men by treating their slaves well even if it took food out of their own mouths? If submitting to their slave masters was God's strategy for Christians, it doesn't seem to have worked very well.

6:31 AM  
Blogger Octavo Dia said...

Why's God so much less pragmatic in the New Testament?

Answer A: With the coming of Christ, we are no longer under the law.

Answer B: The Old Testament pragmatism was civil law, intended for the state of ancient Israel.

Why not tell the Israelites to end slavery in the minds of men by treating their slaves well even if it took food out of their own mouths?

If you read the above, slaves were created for a lack of alternatives. They did treat their slaves well, by the way.

If submitting to their slave masters was God's strategy for Christians, it doesn't seem to have worked very well.

In a few hundred years, the Roman empire was Christianized. It seemed to work quite well.

7:22 AM  
Blogger Octavo Dia said...

Answers in Genesis has done a treatment of the "advocating slavery" angle:

They said about the same things I did.

" 1. Slaves under Mosaic Law were different from the harshly treated slaves of other societies, more like servants or bondservants.
2. The Bible doesn’t give an endorsement of slave traders but the opposite (1 Timothy 1:10). A slave/bondservant was acquired when a person voluntarily entered into it when he needed to pay off his debts.
3. The Bible recognizes that slavery is a reality in this sin-cursed world and doesn’t ignore it, but instead gives regulations for good treatment by both masters and servants and reveals they are equal under Christ.
4. Israelites could sell themselves as a slave/bondservant to have their debts covered, make a wage, have housing and be set free after six years. Foreigners could sell themselves as a slave/bondservant as well.
5. Biblical Christians led the fight to abolish slavery."

8:12 AM  

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