The Question of Slavery
By Tom Gilson
Today’s Bible Belt is situated mostly in the Old South, where pre-Civil War pastors and plantation owners infamously quoted Scripture in support of slavery. Atheists and skeptics have often pounced on this, claiming that it proves Christianity is immoral at its core, or at least hopelessly behind the times and playing ethical catch-up with the rest of the world. In recent years this accusation has rung especially loudly from prominent “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.
It’s an important issue. We have have seen what a scourge upon the earth slavery can be. Who doesn’t shudder when thinking of the way African-Americans were treated in the Old South? Who could imagine God permitting such a thing among His people in the Bible?
The answer, it turns out, is that He didn’t. Slavery in the Bible is a complex issue that takes us into unfamiliar ancient worlds, and scholars who have delved into those worlds have discovered that things are not what they seem on the surface.
What Did Slavery Mean in the Bible?
One of those scholars is Paul Copan, professor of philosophy at Palm Beach Atlantic University, and author of the recently released Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God. Much of his material on slavery is also accessible on the Web in his article “Does the Old Testament Endorse Slavery? An Overview,” the first of a series in progress at Enrichment Journal.
Copan reveals a picture of slavery in the Bible that bears almost no resemblance to the Old South’s chattel slavery. Instead it was much more like the indentured servitude we all learned about in our history classes, often with “formal contractual agreements,” such as Jacob’s agreement to work seven years for Laban in return for the opportunity to marry Laban’s daughter.
Old Testament servanthood was distinct from early American slavery in multiple ways, says Copan, including:
- It was essentially intended as a means to relieve the poor of their crushing economic burdens. It was salvation from starvation for many.
- It was for a limited period, until the year of Jubilee every seven years, after which release was to be complete and final, unless the slave (servant) preferred to stay.
- Debt-servants were to be treated with full human dignity.
- Injured servants were to be released.
- The practice of kidnapping persons to enslave them was outlawed.
- Runaway slaves were to be given safe harbor.
So when we read the word slavery in the Bible, we must guard against thinking it’s talking about slavery as it was once practiced in the United States…
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