As we are constantly reminded almost daily by America’s media and major corporations, the recently-ended month formerly known as February is now universally recognized as “Black History Month.” Contemporary acknowledgement of “Black History Month” is twofold. The first is to celebrate black achievement; the second is to denounce “racism” and suggest that there is much more work to be done to achieve equality. Around this time every year, we are regaled with stories of the achievements of blacks and how their contributions are essential to the lifestyle that we know and enjoy here in America. Of course, these contributions and achievements tend to be exaggerated,1 and so we are also treated to accounts of more abstract accomplishments of blacks during the so-called “civil rights movement.”
Most people remain aware that an achievement gap persists between whites and non-whites in America, and specifically between whites and blacks. Because most Americans have committed to the Enlightenment theory that “all men are created equal,” as expressed by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence,2 we have to concoct an explanation to rationalize persistent inequality. The common, politically correct explanation is that everyone is equal regardless of racial differences, and any underachievement by blacks in terms of intelligence, crime, or socio-economic status should be attributed to “racist” attitudes of whites that hold blacks back from achieving their full natural potential.
Almost inevitably, discussions of “racism” in America inevitably end up denouncing the institution of slavery and attributing any and all black underachievement to the so-called “legacy of slavery.” This explanation is popular among ostensibly conservative Christians, as well as secular and liberal thinkers. Slavery is considered by the modern church to be the worst of evils and the most severe of sins. Many Christian denominations make constant apologies for slavery and constantly prostrate themselves to the politically correct memes of post-modern society. I aim to correct this error, providing a biblical understanding of slavery.
To be perfectly clear, this is not an carte blanche endorsement of slavery, as though it ought to make us proud. Slavery has been the cause of a great deal of suffering on the part of both blacks and whites in America and throughout the world. The second installment of this brief series will contain an overview of dispensationalism and the Golden Rule, and how these questions are relevant to the historical nature of the slavery debate. A third installment will provide a brief study on the New Testament epistles, and a fourth installment will provide some historic background into the nature of slavery in Western European history. In investigating the history of the slavery debate, we will see that the older trend of opinions among Christians was not nearly so committed to abolitionism as prevailing opinions are today. This installment will focus upon slavery as it is discussed in the Old Testament.
Relevant Old Testament Passages to the Discussion of Slavery
Henry Edward Cardinal Manning once famously remarked that “all differences of opinion are at bottom theological.”3 There are no issues that do not ultimately boil down to disagreements over religion and worldview. Slavery is no exception. The question of slavery and the ethical, moral, and social questions surrounding its existence and history must ultimately be answered from the conviction that one can derive only from God’s Law. As Christians, we must understand that morality is not based upon the transient opinions of people from age to age, but rather upon the word of the God who does not change (Mal. 3:6, James 1:17). The Apostle John tells us that “sin is a transgression of the law” (1 John 3:4) and that every Christian is bound to assent to this rule-governing morality. Failure to understand this problem will result in widespread lawlessness and the unjust condemnation of several false sins, such as “racism” (Is. 5:20, Mic. 7:3). If slavery as an institution is wrong and sinful, nay the greatest evil, then we should expect to see a clear and unambiguous condemnation of this in the Bible, in both the Old Testament as well as the New Testament. Let us begin by looking at some relevant Old Testament passages that concern the question of servitude.
The earliest mention of servitude in the Bible is made in Genesis, after the flood has taken place. Noah is spied drunk and naked by his son Ham, and he curses him and his son Canaan with servitude to the descendants of his cousins from Japheth and Shem. While it is apparent that the servitude for which Canaan’s descendants are destined by Noah is not necessarily a part of the natural order, this passage demonstrates that society does not need to be egalitarian and that servitude is not in and of itself immoral.
After this, we read of the 318 servants of Abraham (Gen. 14:14), some of whom were bought with money from foreigners (Gen. 17:12). It might be argued that the mere fact of Abraham’s ownership of servants is not sufficient proof of divine sanction. This is true, but we must also see that Abraham’s servant Hagar was told by the angel to return to her mistress in submission (Gen. 16:9), which Hagar obediently complied to do. This serves as further evidence as to the legitimacy of the institution of servitude. It is therefore incorrect to speak without qualification of the “sin of slavery,” as though the institution itself is intrinsically sinful.
One of the most conclusive passages in the Bible showing that the institution of slavery is not sinful in and of itself is Genesis 17. In this chapter, we have God making a covenant with Abraham. Further, it is God who is dictating the terms of the covenant; Abraham does not even speak the entire chapter. If Abraham were engaged in some deeply sinful activity–say, if Abraham were raping or killing or stealing–then all God had to do was to tell Abraham to cease and desist as part of the covenant. But instead of condemning Abraham for owning hundreds of slaves, God sanctions the institution by including them in the covenant as slaves (Gen. 17:13-14, 27).
The master-servant relationship is further legitimized in the Ten Commandments. We read in the tenth commandment that we are forbidden to covet our neighbor’s “manservant” or his “maidservant” (Ex. 20:17, cf. Deut. 5:21). Commenting on the issue of humans’ being considered property, whether they are wives or servants, John Henry Hopkins states:
Here it is evident that the principle of property — “anything that is thy neighbor’s” — runs through the whole. I am quite aware, indeed, of the prejudice which many good people entertain against the idea of property in a human being, and shall consider it, in due time, amongst the objections. I am equally aware that the wives of our day may take umbrage at the law which places them in the same sentence with the slave, and even with the house and the cattle. But the truth is none the less certain.
The wife has a real property in her husband, because he is bound, for life, to cherish and maintain her. The character of property is doubtless modified by its design. But whatever, whether person or thing, the law appropriates to an individual, becomes of necessity his property.4
We find an extended discussion of slavery in Exodus 21. In these verses, we read about precepts regulating servitude. We read that Hebrew servants would serve for six years and then go free at Jubilee. If the servant did not desire freedom, he could have voluntarily decided to remain in the service of his master. We are told as well that female servants were not to be sold to foreign nations. If a female slave were married to her master’s son, then she was to be treated the same as any other wife would be treated. In this way, sexual slavery is strictly prohibited. We are also told that beating a servant in a way that does not cause permanent injury is not to be punished, because a slave or a servant is property. The assumption here is that someone would not want to damage his means of production by causing permanent damage to render a servant non-productive. If permanent injury would have occurred, presumably in a case in of uncontrolled rage, then the servant would have been permitted immediately go free. If the slave died as a result of injury, then the owner would have been punished under the legal principle of “an eye for an eye.” This firmly establishes that biblical slavery is not an institution in which human dignity is disregarded and in which people were reduced to chattel on the level of animals.
An aspect that is often coupled to the slavery debate is the sin of man-stealing, or what is commonly known today as kidnapping. This is prohibited by the precept in Deut. 24:7, which says: “If a man be found stealing any of his brethren of the children of Israel, and maketh merchandise of him, or selleth him; then that thief shall die; and thou shalt put evil away from among you.” This law shows how heinous God considers the act of man-stealing and selling into slavery. Other passages that address the question of slavery presuppose that slaves are serving to work off a debt or are willingly serving a master they love. This clearly condemns what was perpetrated by Joseph’s brothers against him in selling him to the Midianites, who in turn sold him to the court of Egypt (Gen. 37). Much of African slavery was based upon the habitual practice of man-stealing between the various African tribes. It can certainly be argued that it might have been wrong for Western merchants to encourage the sin of man-stealing among these tribes, but it is more likely that Western merchants simply made the already-existing practice more lucrative. It is unlikely that the enslavement of Africans would have been different without European participation. More on this issue will be discussed in the future, but for now it is worth pointing out that this precept does not directly condemn the ownership of foreign slaves. The difference between native-born slaves and foreigners is discussed in Leviticus 25.
Continuing in this vein, Leviticus 25 addresses perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of the slavery discussion. Many conservative Christian thinkers and theonomists acknowledge that the Bible allows for some form of slavery, and thus that the West in general and the American South in particular do not deserve the blame they receive for slavery. However, most of these thinkers usually stop short of endorsing blatantly politically correct ideas by suggesting that biblical slavery is never race-based. This is not an accurate understanding of the Bible, for this premise ignores what is taught in Leviticus 25. We read in Lev. 25:39-46, 55:
39And if thy brother that dwelleth by thee be waxen poor, and be sold unto thee; thou shalt not compel him to serve as a bondservant: 40But as an hired servant, and as a sojourner, he shall be with thee, and shall serve thee unto the year of jubile. 41And then shall he depart from thee, both he and his children with him, and shall return unto his own family, and unto the possession of his fathers shall he return. 42For they are my servants, which I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: they shall not be sold as bondmen. 43Thou shalt not rule over him with rigour; but shalt fear thy God. 44Both thy bondmen, and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. 45Moreover of the children of the strangers that do sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land: and they shall be your possession. 46And ye shall take them as an inheritance for your children after you, to inherit them for a possession; they shall be your bondmen for ever: but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigour. 55For unto me the children of Israel are servants; they are my servants whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
This passage sheds light on another passage that concerns slavery. We read in Deut. 23:15-16: “Thou shalt not deliver unto his master the servant which is escaped from his master unto thee: he shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose, in one of thy gates where it liketh him best: thou shall not oppress him.” Hopkins comments,
This evidently must be referred to the case of a slave who had escaped from a foreign heathen master, and cannot, with any sound reason, be applied to the slaves of the Israelites themselves. For it is manifest that if it were so applied, it would nullify the other enactments of the divine Lawgiver, and it would have been an absurdity to tell the people that they should “buy bondmen and bondmaids of the heathen and the stranger, to be their possession and the inheritance of their children forever,” while, nevertheless, the slaves should be at liberty to run away and become freemen when they pleased. It is the well-known maxim, in the interpretation of all laws; that each sentence shall be so construed as to give a consistent meaning to the whole. And assuredly, if we are bound to follow this rule in the legislation of earth, we cannot be less bound to follow it in the legislation of the Almighty.5
God’s divine law remains the same throughout the Bible, because God himself does not change (Mal. 3:6, Jam. 1:17) and He is perfectly just (Deut. 32:4, Job 4:17, Is. 45:21, Acts 22:41, 1 Pet. 3:18, Rev. 15:3). God’s revelation in the Old Testament clearly allowed and regulated servitude that was similar to what was practiced in the West. It is a sign of our age’s lack of discernment that slavery has been considered “the greatest evil,” when the institution itself is sanctioned and regulated rather than prohibited in Scripture. America in the seventeenth through the middle of the nineteenth centuries was a nation that generally had a thorough knowledge and a deeply abiding respect for God’s revealed word. This accounts for many practices that were common throughout the West at this time, including the typical approach to the question of slavery.
The reason that so many opinions have changed throughout the West is because our worldview has changed from a Christian worldview to a secular humanist worldview. Since humanism is predicated upon absolute equality between all people, slavery in any form must be discarded, since it is necessarily unequal. Many people may believe that the old law allowed for slavery, but that the demands of the Gospel necessarily dispense with such an unequal institution. We shall see that this is far from the case, and that Christ and His apostles are in lockstep with God’s revelation in the Old Testament.
- See “Black Invention Myths”: http://www33.brinkster.com/iiiii/inventions/ ↩
- See “The Heresy of Equality: Bradford Replies to Jaffa.” M.E. Bradford. Modern Age, Winter 1976. ↩
- Henry Edward Cardinal Manning as quoted in Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, p. 432. Sometimes quoted as “all great quarrels between men are at bottom theological.” ↩
- “The Bible View of Slavery,” by John Henry Hopkins. http://www.southernslavery.com/articles/bible_view_slavery.htm ↩
- Ibid. ↩