God’s Stance On Slavery
Dr. Jason Long
The common apologetic response to the question of how God feels about slavery is that he definitely opposed the historical tradition. The long-time practice of holding innocent individuals against their will could very well be the worst crime humankind has ever committed. The Hebrew god, who is purported to love his people to a degree that we could never comprehend, would certainly have to declare some explicit opposition to slavery, wouldn’t he? Truth be told, the Bible contains not one mention of God’s desire to end slavery. Out of all the “thou shalt nots” and multitude of rules that he provides for us; out of all the chapters that God spends giving us intricate directions for making candles, tents, and temples; and out of all the chapters that God inspires the authors to spend on telling us who begat whom; not once does he ever take the time to abolish, admonish, or reject slavery.
Because God is omniscient, he knew a time would arrive when the results of his silence would include the capture, torture, castration, dehumanization, and/or murder of tens of millions of Africans around the world. Even with his unlimited knowledge, God still neglects to spend two seconds of his infinite time to ensure that we have his documented denouncement of slavery. Using elementary deduction and common sense on this scrap of information, we’re already able to conclude that it wasn’t displeasing in the eyes of the Hebrew god for a more powerful individual to own a lesser.
Does the presumably apathetic preference of God toward slavery mean that we’re left with a distant ruler demonstrably indifferent toward the institution? In such a case, perhaps he wants us to use our judgment on whether or not it’s morally acceptable to own other people. Regrettably, an in depth analysis of the Bible tells us that this cannot be the case either. As hard as it may be to accept, even for those doubtful of the Bible’s authenticity, God and the multitude of his appointed biblical authors are strongly vocal in their advocation of slavery. In fact, prior to the American Civil War, slaveholders worldwide used many of the passages we’ll examine to justify their nightmarish treatment of kidnapped Africans.
The orders supposedly given by God are clear enough that I can honestly see how a mentally conditioned Christian would condone or support slavery. If society taught such individuals from birth that the Bible is infallible, even when it drastically varies from their own understanding, many slaveholders would separate from generated cognitive dissonance by submitting to the presumably superior knowledge held by the higher power. Those who broke free from the Christian mindset, illogically justified their way around it, or never supported such religious hatred would eventually coalesce as the abolitionists.
In this modern age, we’d like to pretend that the upcoming passages couldn’t be found in the Bible. Even so, that won’t make them go away. Again, the church often neglects the Old Testament due to the uneasy feelings that its controversial topics, such as slavery, create. Consequently, this chapter may be the only opportunity that Christian readers have to investigate what information we can extract from these slavery-related biblical passages. Certain verses will prominently show that the so-called divinely inspired people speaking on behalf of the Hebrew god unequivocally state that he was in support of slave ownership.
Before we start analyzing specific passages, however, I need to clarify a bit of terminology. The 1600s King James Version of the Bible often uses servant in the English translation to describe people with what we’ll temporarily designate as “freedom deprivation.” Since the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and the Hebrew term ebed has an ambiguous meaning of slave or servant, some passages might be too vague to translate effectively without supplemental information. However, the New Testament was penned in Greek; and the Greek words doulos and douloi, meaning slave(s), are most often used to describe people with freedom deprivation. The Greeks had an alternative word, diakonos, for a hired servant or assistant. The authors only use this term when the circumstances obviously depict a voluntary work service.
Because the writers of the New Testament knew exactly what they meant when using the term doulos, we can conclude that ebed refers to a slave when spoken of under the same doulos circumstances. We also have the luxury of relying on the enormous amount of context clues provided in Old Testament passages. Be careful not to let the KJV Bible fool you with its use of the term servant or any derivatives of the word (bondservant, maidservant, manservant, etc.) throughout the Old Testament unless they’re used in the proper context. The New International Version and many other modern translations of the Bible wisely correct most of these assuredly intentional mistranslations.
The “Origin” Of Slavery
The first biblical mention of slavery occurs during the lives of Noah and his three sons. After the flood, one of Noah’s sons, Ham, discovers the only man worthy enough to save from the flood lying naked and drunk in a tent. As Ham informs his brothers Shem and Japheth about their drunk and naked father, the two of them cover him up without looking. When Noah finds out about the seemingly harmless incident, he curses Ham’s son, Canaan, and orders him to be a slave to his two uncles. On this day, slavery is supposedly born (Genesis 9:20-27). Thus, the origin of slavery arises from a single young man whose father made the “mistake” of seeing his father in the nude. I find it entirely fitting that the root of slavery would be as ridiculous as the institution itself. As a matter of much lesser importance, God punishes yet another individual for the actions of someone over whom this young man has no conceivable control.
The Bible later tells us that each of Noah’s sons went their own ways and repopulated the earth. We know Shem and his descendants stayed in the Middle East because Abraham, David, and Jesus were among his recorded descendants (Genesis 11:10-26, Matthew 1). In pre-Civil War America, slaveholders often speculated that the descendants of Ham and the cursed Canaan eventually ended up deep into Africa. For this reason, they deemed the kidnapping of innocent Africans to be perfectly justifiable since the righteous Noah initiated the practice. Moreover, God has already established his acceptance of punishing the offspring of those who make mistakes, as was the case for Ham and Canaan.
Although slaveowners based their rationalizations solely on faulty premises, such deductions created a logical conclusion once you ignore their uninformed fallacy of accepting the Bible as indispensable truth. In this somewhat more enlightened society, most of us obviously realize that slavery isn’t a logical or humane concept. We should say the same about the decision to punish one person for the actions of another. I wish we could also say that God has made similar improvements.
At one point, God even informs Abraham that his descendents would be slaves for four hundred years sometime in the near future (Genesis 15:13). What God is actually expressing to Abraham is that he’s not going to do anything to stop this imminent enslavement. Back in the real world, however, archeological evidence indicates that slavery existed throughout the region well before the lives of Noah and Abraham. Thus, these aren’t the true historical origins of slavery. However, if you believe that the Bible is free from error, your blind assumption forces you to deny the obvious conclusion based on scientific evidence and accept the orders contained in the rest of this composition as God’s true desires.
A Slave Or A Servant?
As I alluded to earlier, there’s a clear distinction between a slave and a servant. We can best describe a slave as an involuntary possession of another person. One of God’s popularized Ten Commandments orders us to not “covet thy neighbor’s house…wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor anything that is thy neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17). Upon first glance, it may seem that there’s a distinction between the specifically listed items and anything a person can physically possesses. Actually, those were just redundancies of common objects to which a person might claim ownership. It’s perfectly reasonable to assume that a person can own an animal or a house, and we know from the previous chapter that women were the possessions of men. It’s also reasonable to assume that we can say the same for slaves, the final article from the list, since they are, by definition, possessions of the owner. In short, slaves have no liberties and are at the mercy of their masters.
A servant is someone who chooses to do work for another person, usually in exchange for compensation. Servants are free to depart as they please and aren’t subject to the cruel treatment endured by slaves. Many Christians, at least the ones who take the time to read the Old Testament, honestly accept the KJV translation that leads them to believe that all instances of ebed refer to a servant or someone who volunteered to become a slave. First and foremost, no one volunteers to be treated like a slave. The other half of this hypothesis clearly doesn’t hold water either when Leviticus 25:39-40 is considered. Within this passage, God informs the Israelites that there may come a time when one of their fellow compatriots will become indigent and have no possessions left to impound. If someone sells this hypothetical individual to pay his debts, the owner is not to treat him like an ebed, but as a “hired servant.”
If all the references of ebed in the Old Testament refer to a servant, as the apologetic hypothesis maintains, the passage from Leviticus actually reads, “Don’t treat him like a servant, but as a hired servant.” Why is there a distinction between the treatment of a servant and this hypothetical man, who the owner should treat as a hired servant? Since there’s no defining difference between a servant and a hired servant, the KJV translation and Christian interpretation are 100% redundant. On the other hand, there’s an enormous contrast between a slave and a hired servant. That must be the precise distinction attempted by the passage because its words could not possibly serve any other purpose. Slaveowners treated their slaves differently from the way people treated common servants, and that’s the reason why these instructions were included. In short, God didn’t want his chosen people treated like slaves. The alternative conditions endured by foreigners are what follow in the next few sections.
Your Rules For Owning Slaves
As with everything else in the Bible, there are rules accompanying slave ownership. You may wonder how slaveowners were supposed to treat their slaves during their involuntary stay. Did God explicitly allow slaveowners to beat their living property? Absolutely! If a man hits his slave hard enough to keep him down for a day or two, but the slave gets back up, “he shall not be punished: for he is his money” (Exodus 21:21). It doesn’t get any clearer than that. God believes that a slave is nothing more than a financial investment of the owner.
The only way that the law can distribute a punishment for the physical onslaught is if it results in the slave’s death, yet the author doesn’t list the exact punishment. However, if a slaveowner knocks out a slave’s teeth, the slave is to go free as compensation for his injuries. The same goes for a strike to the slave’s eye resulting in a loss of sight (Exodus 21:20-27), but I’d hardly consider inherent freedom to be a fair compensation for permanent blindness. If God doesn’t approve of a regular slave beating, why does he provide these guidelines in the Bible?
We’ve established, at the very least, that God condones the beating of slaves, but is the practice encouraged? The educative Proverb 29:19 informs its reader that a slave “cannot be corrected by mere words.” First, that’s an obvious error since there’s certainly at least once instance in which a slave was corrected through verbal discipline. More importantly, this verse paints one of the darkest pictures in the Bible. If God’s book says slaveowners can’t correct their property by verbal reprimand, what’s the prominent and likely alternative? The Bible has already informed us which punishment is legally substitutable.
Another right of slaveowners is to collect a compensation of thirty shekels of silver in the event that another man’s ox gores his property (i.e. slave). That’s the equivalent of $60 US in today’s currency, the exact value of a woman. Sixty dollars seems like a low price for the well-being of another individual, but after all, he is just money. As you should expect, there’s no mention of compensation for the slave if he happens to survive the attack (Exodus 21:32).
If you buy a fellow Hebrew, you can only keep him for six years. Once this time has elapsed, he’s free to leave. However, there’s a catch. If the owner provided him with a wife, she has to stay with the master because she is his property. If the couple gave birth to children over the preceding six years, God also considers them the property of the owner. With these factors in mind, the man has the option of staying or leaving. If his final decision is to remain with his wife and children, the paroled Hebrew must agree to become property of his family’s owner for life (Exodus 21:1-6).
In a nutshell, a man can leave his wife and kids behind in order to earn his freedom; otherwise, he can stay with them, give up his freedom, and resign to share their fate. As hardly any honorable man would choose to leave his family behind in such a selfish act, I must admit that this is quite a clever ruse conjured by such a primitive mind. I’d imagine that almost all men of moral character faced with this critical decision would feel compelled to remain onboard as a slave. As a direct result of this “decision,” the slaveowner can now claim that the man is staying on his own accord.
Another regulation involves buying a “maidservant.” If a man sells his daughter to be the wife and sex slave of another man, she doesn’t have the inherent right to freedom after six years that the Hebrew men enjoy. The new owner has total discretion in deciding whether to keep her or set her free. If, however, he bought her as a present for his son, he must grant her the rights of a daughter. Although if you’ve read the previous chapter in this book, you’ll realize that a daughter’s rights can’t be overwhelmingly abundant. The only way this woman can ever be given her freedom is to be deprived of food or clothing by her master (Exodus 21:7-11).
A counterargument often developed by apologists references Colossians 4:1. In this verse, the author suggests that masters should be fair to their slaves. I suppose that the Christian mind believes this is somehow supposed to override every other instruction handed down to us, making the slavery issue magically disappear. Besides, what is fair to them other than respecting God’s established laws? This passage doesn’t condemn the beating of slaves; if anything, it encourages it! As we will later see, this isn’t the only mention of slave treatment and behavior in the New Testament. Most of the authors order the slaves to be completely obedient and to refrain from questioning their masters.
How You Might Have Become A Slave
A number of unfortunate factors place an individual at risk for becoming an Israelite’s slave in the Old Testament. The quickest way is to be caught stealing. If the perpetrator swipes someone’s property and can’t generate some type of restitution for it, the thief is to be sold into slavery in order to compensate the owner for his losses (Exodus 22:1-3). Personally, I’ve always felt that we needed tougher laws to deter shoplifting, but I hope we can all agree that God’s solution is excessive. These obviously weren’t favorable times for people born with kleptomania, which, by the way, is a genuine medical disorder currently believed to be caused by a serotonin imbalance. God essentially turns a blind eye and doesn’t make allowances for the genetically predispositioned lawbreakers that he creates.
While Joshua is traveling across the desert to slaughter his countless enemies, he meets a group of Gibeonites pretending to be someone Joshua doesn’t want to kill. When Joshua solves the reason for their curious actions, he interrogates them as to why they were behaving deceitfully. As they respond by acknowledging their awareness of how many people he has killed, Joshua decides to spare their lives and make them slaves instead. When you examine the context of the passage, it appears that the decision to make slaves out of the Gibeonite race will always apply because that’s where these people are “even unto this day” (Joshua 9:22-27). As a result, you would have already been a slave if you were born from Gibeonite lineage.
Another unfortunate circumstance pushing half the population into considerable danger of becoming a slave is to have been born female. From the time a girl is born, she is the property of her father. The ownership is transferred once the father sells her to another man to become his wife or concubine. From the previous chapter, we know that the wife is to be totally subordinate and fully submissive to the husband in every way, regardless of extraneous circumstances. She is not to question her husband, and the New Testament authors disallow her to participate during worship. In essence, she has no real freedom. If you don’t feel this is an example of slavery, I’m afraid you’ve missed the point somewhere along the line.
If your parents were evil, you stood a good chance of becoming a slave. Your enslavement, however, wasn’t a result of your parents selling you for money or anything like that; it was because God wants to punish them for their actions. He says anyone who doesn’t obey his commandments and statutes stands to face a number of curses. The divine hex of particular interest is “thou shalt beget sons and daughters, but thou shalt not enjoy them; for they shall go into captivity” (Deuteronomy 28:15,41 and Joel 3:8). This is yet another example of God threatening to punish children for sins that their parents committed. As I’ve alluded to several times throughout this book, God has a strange sense of justice when deciding proper punishments. Of course, the people who anger God also stand a significant chance of being sold into slavery, but we’ll discuss that notion later on.
How To Go About Acquiring A Slave
As if sending people into slavery wasn’t treacherous enough, God also educates the Israelites on how to obtain slaves for their own personal use. The people who God prefers that they purchase have origins from the surrounding “heathen” nations. It’s also permissible to buy the children of foreigners visiting the Israelite regions. God wants his chosen people to buy only foreigners as life-long slaves because buying a fellow Israelite to serve for more than six years is explicitly disgraceful to him. The purchaser’s newly acquired possession is to remain in the family for as long as the property is still breathing. If the owner dies, the male children should inherit the slaves previously owned by their father (Leviticus 25:44-46).
Slaves are also obtainable from the spoils of various wars taking place at the orders of God. When the almighty delivers the enemy into the hands of his people, he orders the men to be killed, “but the women, and the little ones…shalt thou take unto thyself” (Deuteronomy 20:13-14). From this demand, it’s reasonable to assume that the captives wouldn’t desire for the aggressors to uproot them from their land. Even so, God ignores their wishes because he apathetically allowed their society to become conditioned to worship other deities. As a result, the Hebrew barbarians no doubt raped the women and young girls while they molded the boys into laborious slaves. I have no doubt about the absolute impossibility for anyone to provide true justification for this occurrence. God, once again, demonstrates that he can be pure evil.
Rules For Slaves To Follow
The rules we’ve covered thus far were divine guidelines on how to conduct yourself around your slaves. The slaves, too, had rules to follow if they wanted a chance to see the glory of God in the afterlife. Paul addresses slaves in his letter to the Corinthians when he tells them that they shouldn’t be distressed about the time they spend as douloi (slaves) because free men are also slaves to Jesus (1 Corinthians 7:21-22). I sincerely hope Paul wasn’t deluded enough to genuinely think that his statement was an appropriate analogy or a comforting message for the beaten and oppressed. Other than Paul admitting we have no choice but to enslave ourselves to Jesus in order to avoid eternal damnation, you may also find it deeply disturbing that the man most responsible for starting the Christian explosion encouraged slaves not to stand up for their basic human rights.
Any decent person knows that this lifestyle is humiliating and demoralizing, not to mention just plain wrong, because freedom is essential to a healthy and happy existence. I’m sure Paul would have ceased his apathetic attitude toward their predicament if he had switched places with one of them for a while. To be fair, however, Paul sincerely thought Jesus was going to arrive and whisk everyone away to Heaven within a few years. Thus, he believed that the slaves shouldn’t do anything to jeopardize their chances for an upcoming ticket to paradise. He also thought slaves should go free if they had that option. However, Paul’s beliefs in Jesus’ expedited visit were incorrect, and he didn’t consider the ramifications of being wrong. In reality, I think that Paul truly wanted people to be good to slaves, but he was obviously under the false impression that the Old Testament had legitimacy. However, the Christian crowd must necessarily believe that Paul’s words are divinely inspired. In such a scenario, God knew slavery would continue for nearly two more millennia, yet he allows Paul to encourage suppression of rebellious feelings.
The author of Ephesians also says slaves are to be submissive. “[Douloi], be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ.” He orders them to follow this rule, not only to please their masters, but also to please God (6:5). We’ve already learned from the Old Testament that nothing indulges God more than an obedient foreign slave; this author simply reinforces the notion. In essence, he unwittingly used a scare tactic of which he was also a victim. If God is pleased with obedient slaves, what does this say about his feelings toward the practice?
The author of Colossians agrees that douloi are to be submissive to their masters “in all things” (3:22). It’s true that the slaveowners have guidelines as well (4:1), but are the slaves allowed to break their own guidelines if commanded to commit immoral acts? The author does a very poor job of clarifying this perplexity. Since an out clause isn’t provided, as was the case for the female slaves (i.e. wives), we can only assume that the text means exactly what it says. Thus, God wants slaves to be obedient regardless of the treatment received.
Peter, who goes more into depth when dispersing his orders to slaves, also reaffirms this idea. They are to be completely obedient and to fear their masters, even the ones who mistreat them (1 Peter 2:18). In other words, no matter how bad they beat you, abuse you, starve you, or rape you, don’t act with disobedience. There’s no need to pretend that Peter wasn’t aware of how some masters treated their slaves. Even in those circumstances, he wants them to be fully submissive. We can reasonably infer that God wants a slave to just sit and watch in the not-so-hypothetical situation that the master is raping his wife. Why can we make such a drastic inference? The same answer as always: divine inspiration. By this point, we should really begin to wonder how the Bible is repeatedly able to top its own record-setting level of disturbance.
The author of the first letter to Timothy says that slaves should look at their masters with utmost respect (6:1). This might be hard to do if disrespectable masters are beating and raping their family members at will. In the last known set of biblical instructions for slavery, the author of Titus says that slaves should be educated on how they can be completely obedient to their masters (2:9-10). I’m afraid to ponder what he may have had in mind.
Once again, to be fair to Paul and the other New Testament authors, they were normal individuals unaware of the lack of reliability held by the Old Testament. No god is going to punish slaves for standing up to their masters, but we should expect neither the authors nor the slaves to realize this fact because, centuries ago, superstition evidently superseded common sense. When Christians insert the notion of divine inspiration into the Bible, however, this rational explanation becomes inadmissible. Christians must then accept the explicit words authored in the New Testament as perfect representations of God’s desires.
Who Is The Ultimate Slave Trader?
If you can’t already correctly guess the answer to this question, you apparently haven’t been paying close attention. In addition to the commands that God gives for the Israelites to acquire slaves, the instructions that he provides to the Israelites on where to locate slaves, the rules that he gives for possession of slaves, the threats that he makes to convert people into slaves, and the times that he destines certain people to become slaves, God allegedly trades more slaves than any known individual in history. To be fair about it, if you wish to call it that, God often forewarned his people about a series of curses that he would bring upon them if they didn’t listen to his voice and follow his commandments. The hex in which we’re interested at the moment is the promise of serving the enemy tribes as a slave with a “yoke of iron upon thy neck” (Deuteronomy 28:48). That day certainly came, and it did so more than once.
After Joshua dies in the book of Judges, the Israelites turn their backs on God. Of course, this further ignites the inextinguishable fury within God’s heart. As promised before, he sells them to a group of raiders (2:10-14). After God feels that he taught them a sufficient lesson, he makes them a free people once again (2:16). However, as they soon return to their evil ways, circumstances force God to teach them a lesson once again, which makes you wonder why he let them go free in the first place. He then peddles them off on a King of Mesopotamia. When the people of Israel are once again slaves, they cry out for God to save them. After letting them serve eight years, he figures that the King has served his purpose. Now, God sends an army led by Othniel to defeat the King and retrieve his chosen people. As long as Othniel lives, the Israelites remain faithful to God. When Othniel dies, however, they once again return to their evil ways of idolizing other gods. Thus, God allows Eglon, King of Moab, to take them as slaves. Again, the people cry out to God for freedom, and, again, he sends relief in an individual named Ehud to kill the King and free the Israelites. Ehud lives another eight years, but the situation changes when he dies. I hope that you’re starting to get the idea by now.
As the Israelites once again become evil, God sells them to Jabin, King of Canaan. For the third time, God sends relief and frees his people (Chapters 3-4), and their subsequent freedom lasts forty years. For the fourth time, the Israelites, who obviously didn’t learn their lesson, become evil again. God then delivers them in a battle to Midian and the Midianites. When the Israelites cry out for God as you might have anticipated, he sends Gideon to free them yet again by delivering the Midianite army into his hands (Chapters 6-7). Once Gideon dies, the Israelites return to serving other gods again (8:28-35). I know this story is getting old by now, but you should see the absurdity in an omniscient God taking this route to teach people a lesson.
By this point in the tale, God seems to ignore their misbehavior for a while before delivering them into the hands of the Philistines and Ammonites (10:7). When they ask for help, God reminds them that he has already freed them on four separate occasions (five, counting the Exodus). He then suggests that they should call upon the gods that they turned to earlier for help (10:14). Even so, God shows a hint of benevolence by setting them free again. The chore of liberating them on this occasion falls upon Jephthah (Chapter 11). As Jephthah dies and the Israelites become evil for an unprecedented sixth time, God delivers them to the Philistines for forty years (Chapters 13-16).
The point of all this mess is that God sold or delivered his own people to be slaves on six different occasions because they didn’t want to worship him. Do people dumb enough not to stick with a god who undeniably helps them out on such a regular and reliable basis really have the capacity to follow directions? Doesn’t this story read more like a fairy tale or a fable with an intended moral than an actual historical account?
The threat of slavery didn’t end with the Philistines though. In Jeremiah 15:14, the author reminds us that God will once again sell people into slavery if he chooses to exercise his unlimited power. Such a divinely inspired passage could serve as a perfect justification for those opposing the abolitionist movement. Even so, I fail to see the point in rewarding the Israelites for doing things that God more or less forces them to do, such as worshiping him, when the alternative is a severe punishment of lifelong enslavement. Yet, God does the same thing to us by allegedly offering us eternal paradise as opposed to eternal damnation in Hell. Do believers in these situations really have a choice? Aren’t we also slaves to this god’s desires?
The Racist God
I hope you realized long before reading this chapter that enslaving the innocent is wrong. There’s a huge problem, however, in reconciling this belief with the postulate of a “wonderful” and “loving” biblical god because this deity repeatedly commits heinous acts that we inherently know are immoral. Time after time, God sells slaves and orders people to take others as their slaves. He has rules for slaveholders, and the divinely inspired writers of the New Testament have orders for the slaves.
This is the thought that I’m hoping Christian readers will consider among themselves: “I feel that God is a wonderful and loving creator, yet the men who wrote the Old Testament say that God encouraged people to make slaves of foreigners because they worship different gods. He also allowed women to live as slaves because the men believed that females were the inferior gender. These aren’t wonderful and loving decisions. The Old Testament writers even say that God sold slaves and gave rules to Moses permitting his people to beat the male slaves and rape the female slaves. This does not seem right at all. Did God actually say and do all these horrible things, or were the authors probably trying to advance ulterior motives by tricking a gullible audience into believing that these ghastly commands were truly of divine origin?”
As the events of Genesis are purported to have started taking place at least 3,000 years before we know of anyone who recorded them on hardcopy, no primary eyewitnesses were around to testify for or against the legitimacy of these claims. If you decide that God actually said the things written in the Bible, it certainly throws out the notion that he’s “wonderful” and “loving.” If, on the other hand, you decide that God would never make the aforementioned suggestions, it certainly brings the validity of the Bible’s content into question. Think about it for a while. [God is imaginary!]
Copyright © Dr Jason Long. All rights reserved.