10 Things You Need to Know About the Bible and Slavery

by Graham Veale

“The ideal type of the slave is the socially dead chattel, ripped forcibly from organic ties of kin and community, transported to an alien environment there to be treated as merely a piece of property or as a factor of production to be used and abused at will, an animate tool or beast of burden with no sense of self other than that allowed by the slave owner and no legal, let alone civic, personality whatsoever. Societies with large numbers of such slaves, let alone societies based on them, have been very few. The City of Athens and central Roman Italy for periods in antiquity, and in modern times the slave states of the American Old South, the Caribbean, and Brazil, are the only known instances.” Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization (OUP:1998) p670

1) The Old Testament texts are historical documents; when studying history we must remember that the passage of time creates chasms between cultures and societies. Every feature of the past must be interpreted in its own historical context. The experience of a black slave in the Confederate states was not the experience of a slave in ancient Israel. We can’t assume that Israel would have tolerated the slavery of the American Old South, or that the Slave States would have found the slavery of the ancient Israelites profitable or useful.

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  2) The slavery described by the Old Testament texts was different in purpose, function and practice than the slavery of the British Empire or the American colonies. Ancient Israel was an agricultural community in which every family was one bad harvest away from starvation. Money was rarely exchanged; there was no welfare system. The slavery described by the Old Testament law existed so that workers could provide for their families in lean times. If a crop failed a father could go to work for a land owner in exchange for a loan. Or he might send his wife or children to work in another’s’ fields for food and board.

3) A person could also become a slave to pay a debt. There was no shame attached to becoming a slave. For example, Jacob “volunteered” for slavery, working for Laban without wage so that he could marry Laban’s daughters. While Laban certainly proved to be a cannier and craftier business man than Jacob, he could not treat Jacob as a piece of property. Jacob, and other patriarchs like Joseph, suffered no dishonor for being slaves. In fact, slaves could hold positions of great importance in the Ancient World.

4) This “indentured servitude” is more analogous to the life of peasantry in the feudal system than the lives of chattel slaves in the Slave States. Life-long servitude was strictly prohibited (Exodus 21 v 1-4). An injured slave was to be set free with all debts cancelled (Exodus 21 v 26-27). It was illegal to kidnap a person to sell them into slavery (Ex 21 v 16). An escaped slave was to be given refuge by whoever they sought refuge with…

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