Good afternoon, Bible Scholars. We have an excellent topic for today. We are going to be discussing slavery. As a society, we have deemed that slavery is wrong. In all quarters of the United States, we have decided that slavery is immoral and cannot continue. In fact, we fought a war in large part over the issue of slavery. Hundreds of thousands of young men died as a result of this conflict. In this day and age, we consider enslavement an inherent wrong. The important question here, is should we consider slavery wrong? Is there something morally incorrect about owning and keeping slaves?
These may be absurd questions in this day and age. However, if we, as so many good Christians do, use the Bible as our moral compass, then we need to discuss what the Bible has to say on slavery. After doing some considerable research, I can make the following conclusions: slavery is not immoral at all. In fact, the Bible is quite clear that owning slaves is acceptable and even gives some guidelines as to the proper ways to handle slaves. Let’s take a look.
(We should take a minute here to study a couple of definitions. In the KJV – our standard Bible, servant and slave are used as synonyms. More modern editions of the Bible typically use slave where the KJV uses servant. For the purposes of this discussion, servant, bondsman, manservant, maidservant, slave, etc. all have the relative same definitions: that is a person who works for another has does not have the freedom to leave at will.)
Looking up the term “servant” in the King James Bible will net over 850 different citations. Clearly, we do not have the time and the space here to review them all. So, we shall review key selections.
18And the sons of Noah, that went forth of the ark, were Shem, and Ham, and Japheth: and Ham is the father of Canaan.
19These are the three sons of Noah: and of them was the whole earth overspread.
20And Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard:
21And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.
22And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brethren without.
23And Shem and Japheth took a garment, and laid it upon both their shoulders, and went backward, and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were backward, and they saw not their father's nakedness.
24And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him.
25And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
26And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
27God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.
In this verse, we see that being a servant is not a pleasant thing. In fact, Noah curses the son’s of Ham to be the servants of the other brothers. This is important to note: slavery is not considered to be a pleasant thing by God. However, do not confuse something which is not pleasant to be something which is not moral. There are other parts of the Bible where people are cursed to be servants as well. Judging by the amount of whining the Jews did when they were enslaved in Egypt, (Exodus 5: 14-16 for example.) the Bible testifies that slavery is not a happy condition.
Exodus 21 provides us with more insight about God’s attitude toward slaves:
1Now these are the judgments which thou shalt set before them.
2If thou buy an Hebrew servant, six years he shall serve: and in the seventh he shall go out free for nothing.
3If he came in by himself, he shall go out by himself: if he were married, then his wife shall go out with him.
4If his master have given him a wife, and she have born him sons or daughters; the wife and her children shall be her master's, and he shall go out by himself.
5And if the servant shall plainly say, I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free:
6Then his master shall bring him unto the judges; he shall also bring him to the door, or unto the door post; and his master shall bore his ear through with an aul; and he shall serve him for ever.
7And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do.
8If she please not her master, who hath betrothed her to himself, then shall he let her be redeemed: to sell her unto a strange nation he shall have no power, seeing he hath dealt deceitfully with her.
9And if he have betrothed her unto his son, he shall deal with her after the manner of daughters.
10If he take him another wife; her food, her raiment, and her duty of marriage, shall he not diminish.
11And if he do not these three unto her, then shall she go out free without money.
12He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall be surely put to death.
13And if a man lie not in wait, but God deliver him into his hand; then I will appoint thee a place whither he shall flee.
14But if a man come presumptuously upon his neighbour, to slay him with guile; thou shalt take him from mine altar, that he may die.
15And he that smiteth his father, or his mother, shall be surely put to death.
16And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.
17And he that curseth his father, or his mother, shall surely be put to death.
18And if men strive together, and one smite another with a stone, or with his fist, and he die not, but keepeth his bed:
19If he rise again, and walk abroad upon his staff, then shall he that smote him be quit: only he shall pay for the loss of his time, and shall cause him to be thoroughly healed.
20And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished.
21Notwithstanding, if he continue a day or two, he shall not be punished: for he is his money.
22If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.
23And if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life,
24Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
25Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
26And if a man smite the eye of his servant, or the eye of his maid, that it perish; he shall let him go free for his eye's sake.
27And if he smite out his manservant's tooth, or his maidservant's tooth; he shall let him go free for his tooth's sake.
28If an ox gore a man or a woman, that they die: then the ox shall be surely stoned, and his flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall be quit.
29But if the ox were wont to push with his horn in time past, and it hath been testified to his owner, and he hath not kept him in, but that he hath killed a man or a woman; the ox shall be stoned, and his owner also shall be put to death.
30If there be laid on him a sum of money, then he shall give for the ransom of his life whatsoever is laid upon him.
31Whether he have gored a son, or have gored a daughter, according to this judgment shall it be done unto him.
32If the ox shall push a manservant or a maidservant; he shall give unto their master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.
33And if a man shall open a pit, or if a man shall dig a pit, and not cover it, and an ox or an ass fall therein;
34The owner of the pit shall make it good, and give money unto the owner of them; and the dead beast shall be his.
35And if one man's ox hurt another's, that he die; then they shall sell the live ox, and divide the money of it; and the dead ox also they shall divide.
36Or if it be known that the ox hath used to push in time past, and his owner hath not kept him in; he shall surely pay ox for ox; and the dead shall be his own.
What we have here is a list of rules, most of which concern how to treat and deal with slaves. The only reference to freeing slaves here is in reference to letting Jewish slaves go after 6 year and freeing slaves if you have knocked out an eye or a tooth. There is nothing in this chapter to suggest that slavery was immoral. Rather, it seems to be perfectly condoned – as long as a few rules are followed.
Even Jesus did not see the problem with slaves. In fact, many of his parables concerned themselves with the actions of slaves. Consider this parable:
26The servant therefore fell down, and worshipped him, saying, Lord, have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
27Then the lord of that servant was moved with compassion, and loosed him, and forgave him the debt.
28But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest.
29And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.
30And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt.
31So when his fellowservants saw what was done, they were very sorry, and came and told unto their lord all that was done.
32Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me:
33Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?
34And his lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him.
35So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.
This is as close to freeing the slaves as anywhere in the Bible. Ultimately, in this story – no slaves are freed (the forgiven slave is re-enslaved and sent off to be tormented) nor does Christ command us to offer freedom to any slaves. In no other part of the story of Jesus does he call on us to free slaves. The only suggestion of this type is the idea that he would free us from our slavery to sin. What about the other books in the New Testament? What do they have to say about slavery?
Let’s look at an important verse:
5Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of your heart, as unto Christ;
6Not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but as the servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart;
7With good will doing service, as to the Lord, and not to men:
8Knowing that whatsoever good thing any man doeth, the same shall he receive of the Lord, whether he be bond or free.
9And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him.
Here Paul tells servants (slaves) to be obedient to their masters. Further, he tells masters to be kind to their slaves. Nowhere here does Paul encourage slaves to rebel or run away; nor does he tell masters to release their slaves. This verse tells us that even under the rules of the New Testament, slavery is permissible by God.
All in all, we can say clearly that the whole idea of slavery is a moral position based upon how the Bible treats the topic. Banning slavery may not be immoral either but we don’t have a Biblical leg to stand on if we are to consider slavery immoral.
Let us pray, “O Lord, we come to you humbled in the knowledge that we can own slaves. We hope and pray that this divine revelation can be used to assuage our guilt that we have from buying stuff at Wal-Mart. We know these people are slaves to that corporation and we know that slaves are used to make those low-cost sneakers. Lord, thank you for making us feel better about participating in slavery. In Jesus’ holy name, AMEN!”
Talk to you all next time!