Contra Mundum: Slavery and the Old Testament
by Matthew Flannagan
“Why didn’t the Christian God ever explicitly and clearly condemn slavery?” This was John Loftus’ question in his book, Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity. He posed it after sharing the following chilling account of slavery as practiced in the antebellum American south,
He took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist. He made her get upon the stool, and he tied her hands to a hook in the joist. After rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cow skin, and soon the warm, red blood came dripping to the floor … No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood clotted cowskin.
Loftus is not alone, it is often affirmed as an incontestable and obvious truth that the Bible supports slavery. Atheist philosopher Walter Armstrong substantiated this accusation with a citation from the book of Leviticus, “as for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations around you” (Lev 25:44 ESV).
The ESV here uses the English word ‘slave’ to translate the Hebrew word ebed. The problem is that it is not at all clear that these two terms are analogous. In 1690 philosopher John Locke argued that an examination of the Old Testament’s references to an ebed shows that it is not the equivalent what we think of when we hear the term ‘slave.’ Locke is only one of many scholars who have come to the same conclusion.
The Oxford Dictionary defines a slave as a “person who is the legal property of another or others and is bound to absolute obedience, human chattel.” Rodney Stark utilises a similar definition, “A slave is a human being who, in the eyes of the law and custom, is the possession, or chattel, of another human being or of a small group of human beings. Ownership of slaves entails absolute control, including the right to punish (often including the right to kill), to direct behavior, and to transfer ownership.” Timothy Keller astutely observes that the English term ‘slave’ carries connotations of new-world slavery as it was practiced in the British Empire and made infamous in the antebellum southern states of the US.
In the British Empire and in many US states, slavery was governed under the Code of Barbados. This code was explicitly racist and described Africans as “heathenish, brutish, and an uncertaine, dangerous kinde of people.” It allowed owners to use, “unlimited force to compel labor without penalty even if this resulted in maiming or death.” It denied slaves due process rights and permitted owners to, in effect, kill their slave for any cause. It forbade slaves from marrying. It effectively prevented owners from setting their slaves free. Keller writes that, “The African slave trade was begun and resourced through kidnapping.” Stark notes that “20 to 40 percent of slaves died while being transported to the coast, another 3-10 percent died while waiting on the coast, and about 12 to 16 percent boarded on ships died during the voyage.”
However, what the Old Testament refers to differs from slavery, so understood, in several important respects…
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