In my last post I showed how important it is to allow the Bible to judge our thinking rather than to become judges of God and His law. We must not be embarrassed by anything in the Bible, even if it is politically incorrect. Once we understand God’s purposes for the law’s provisions, we will see that God’s ways are perfect. We saw next that we should not assume that what people teach about Biblical slavery is true. Too many times teachers import a pagan conception of slavery into the Biblical text and ignore the Bible’s own definitions of slavery. Biblical slavery is so radically different from most forms of slavery that the Bible did not allow anyone to return a runaway slave to such a master (Deut. 23:15-16). We sought to do away with several misonceptions of slavery by allowing the Bible to define slavery. In this post I will seek to show that Biblical slavery can bring blessing to both the slave and to society at large (see Deut. 15:18), whereas humanistic slavery tends to bring a curse on both (see Gen. 9:25).
For example, the slaves of America’s penal system are at a distinct disadvantage to the slaves of the Bible’s penal system. A Biblical slave could escape from slavery in a number of ways that are not open to modern slaves. If he was in slavery because of debt, theft, or arson (see Ex. 22:2ff; Lev. 25:39; 2Kings 4:1; Matt 18:25), the slavery would cease the moment “full restitution” was made. In stark contrast, modern slaves in America’s Penitentiaries not only do not have to pay restitution to the victim, they can languish in prison for much longer than it would take to pay restitution at even a minimum wage level. Secondly, a believing slave had a maximum sentence of slavery – six years (Ex. 21:2; Deut. 15:12-18; Jer. 34:8-22). If you contrast that with the lengthy sentences that many modern convicts have, Biblical slavery looks good indeed. Another way of escaping slavery at any time was for a kinsman (Lev. 25:25-27,48-55) or other benefactor (Ezra 1:1-4; Neh. 5:8; Philemon 18-19) to pay the debt. In contrast, there is no provision for benefactors to redeem modern slaves out of the Penitentiary.
Nor does humanism fair better on its treatment of slaves. Who would voluntarily commit himself to a Penitentiary? No one. Yet slavery had sufficient advantages that at least some people were willing to commit themselves to being slaves (Lev. 25:47; Deut. 15:16-17). Compare the worst abuses that would have happened under Biblical slavery with the routine abuses and losses of rights in Penitentiaries, and Biblical slavery looks very good indeed. Both civil agencies and private advocacy groups have documented that penitentiaries are the breeding ground of violence, homosexual gang rape, and numerous forms of physical and psychological abuse, not to mention the hardening of criminals in bad thinking and behavior. The report, Confronting Confinement: A Report of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons (Washington, D.C.: Vera Institute of Justice, 2006) paints a picture of prison life that is horrific. Biblical slaves would be protected from such abuses by the Biblical laws cited later in this essay. Even the exit from slavery is a positive mark for the Biblical system. When modern criminals leave prison, they have no money, no skill, and plenty of motivation to return to crime in order to survive. In contrast, Biblical law provided that the owner had to give the released slave enough capital to be able to start his own business (Deut. 15:13-15). Thus Biblical slavery provided restoration of the individual to society, rehabilitation of the individual, a skill-set that would provide for him in the future, gave him the opportunity to learn diligence and other character issues that would make him a useful citizen, gave him the discipline he probably had never received as a child, and offered him a new start.
But it might be objected that some forms of slavery were perpetual (Ex 21:6; Deut. 15:17). That is true. There will always be such slaves. Today they are on the massive plantation known as the welfare system. There are also lifers in prison. However, that is not the ideal since Scripture calls believers to avoid slavery (1 Cor. 7:23) and to not become entangled with any yoke of bondage (Gal. 5:1). If possible, slaves were to seek to obtain freedom because a Christian “slave is the Lord’s freedman” (1 Cor. 7:21-22). It was precisely because Philemon had become a Christian that prompted Paul to ask for his freedom (Philem. 10-21), though it should be pointed out that Paul was willing to purchase his freedom if necessary (vs. 18-19). The very offer of purchase shows the continuing legitimacy of the institution (as outlined in the law). In any case, we do not need to argue that perpetual slavery is good. The preparation for liberty given in Deuteronomy 15:16-17 is far better than the multi-generational welfare system of today on several levels: it was personal (“he loves you”), productive (“he prospers with you”), gave a sense of self-worth (the slave helped the master to be blessed – v. 16), was more akin to the status of an employee (“servant…hired servant”), provided trade skills that could be passed on to the children, gave the person work, provided a way out for future generations, and still provided all the rights we will discuss below.
One of the most frequently heard objections is that the Bible allowed slaves to be purchased from foreign nations (Lev. 25:44) or to be taken captive in war (Deut. 21:10-11; Numb 31:19) and considered them to be property (Ex. 21:21; Lev. 25:45). War has always been an ugly thing, and Biblical warfare principles (Deuteronomy 20) were designed to keep nations (including Israel) from being aggressors and to motivate citizens to defect to Israel and avoid death or captivity. But in contrast to the treatment of modern captives (whose lives are also completely owned and controlled), the Bible mandated that foreign slaves be treated humanely (Lev. 25:44-46), be accorded civil rights (Ex. 20:10; 21:26-27; 23:12; Deut. 5:14 ), and be protected under Biblical law (Ex. 21:12,26,27; Job 31:13-15; Eph. 6:9). Furthermore, when the foreign slave became converted to the true faith (see Esther 8:17 as one of many examples of Gentiles becoming Jews) he had all the rights of a Jewish citizen and could go free at the end of another six years with provision (Deut. 15:13-15). God’s whole system of slavery sought to move people from immaturity (see Gal. 4:1) to mature liberty. We would expect that since the law of God is “the perfect Law of Liberty” (James. 1:25; 2:12).
Another frequent objection to Biblical slavery was that the Biblical slave who rebelled against his master could be subject to beatings (Ex. 21:20-21). But while discipline was assumed, the broader context of that chapter shows that anything that would be considered parental abuse of his child would be considered abuse of a slave. It needs to be realized that Scripture says that a “child does not differ at all from a slave” (Gal. 4:1) and that slaves were considered to be part of the family household (Gen. 14:14; etc.) and therefore received the privileges of that household, including the sign of the covenant (Gen. 17:12-13,27; Ex 12:44) and the communion meal (Ex. 12:44). In other words, the slave was to be treated as an adopted part of the family as long as he was a slave! Far from being the nasty thing that critics say that it was, the Bible elevated the status of slaves far above that of the pagans. Was discipline of a slave allowed? Yes, in the same way that an immature and rebellious child might be disciplined. But Exodus 21 turned all abusive discipline of a slave into a criminal offense. The minimum penalty for abuse of a slave was the state giving the slave complete freedom (vv. 26-27). The maximum penalty was capital punishment of the master (v. 20). Thus, the way many books treat Exodus 21:20-21 is a slander against God and completely ignores the incredible protection that God gave to slaves. If so much as a tooth got knocked out by a master, the slave was given his freedom (Ex. 21:27), and certainly greater forms of abuse (v. 26) resulted in freedom of the slave as well. These were laws punishing abuse, not describing what was the ideal.
But having quoted Galatians 4:1 and having demonstrated that slaves were adopted members of the household shows God’s purpose for slavery – to train those with a slave mentality to love and seek liberty. The Bible seems to assume that most slaves are in their status because they have not learned to grow up, and they are forced by the institution of slavery to learn a work ethic, to start to be future oriented, to learn what submission and leadership looks like, to develop various disciplines of maturity, to develop integrity, and to gain other characteristics that will hopefully lead to freedom. Slavery was an institution designed to produce maturity that would lead to freedom just like the parent-child relationship was designed to produce maturity that would lead to freedom. Did it always work? No. Some slaves never grew up (Ex. 21:5-6) and could not shake off a slave-mentality for the Christian call to liberty (1 Cor. 7:21-23). But then, neither does parenting always work. But it is still important to realize that the Biblical form of slavery was much more likely to lead to eventual liberty than modern statism does. A return to Biblical law on every level would produce liberty because the law is “the perfect Law of Liberty” (James 1:25; 2:12).