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Bible View of Slavery - Comments (21)

Printer Friendly Category: Articles,Doctrine
Author: John Malone
Date: 7th March, 2004 @ 09:53:47 AM

It has been slanderously said that the Scripture condones slavery as was practiced, for example, in the United States prior to the Civil War (1861-1865).

Onesimus, found in the book of Philemon, is perhaps one of the more misunderstood characters in the Scriptures. Those hoping to keep runaway slaves may have used this book for their purposes. Abolitionists – who likely read the Bible no better than their opponents – probably felt like they needed to tear this book out of the Scriptures.

Much of the problem dissolves by READING the single-chapter book: something rarely done, actually.

Because a reasonably careful reading does not find Onesimus to be some kind of “house nigger” or “field nigger” as some would hope, but in fact, he is Philemon’s brother. His name, meaning “profitable,” makes it useful for the purposes of literary device:

10 I beseech thee for my son Onesimus, whom I have begotten in my bonds:
11 Which in time past was to thee unprofitable, but now profitable to thee and to me:

Apparently, Onesimus came to Paul – having run off (see 15 below) – who was in prison, and who led Onesimus to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. Now, says Paul, he has become truly profitable, if not in Philemon’s mind for himself, then certainly for Paul.

15 For perhaps he therefore departed for a season, that thou shouldest receive him for ever;
16 Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?

Once we realize these two fellows are blood brothers – and now, with Onesimus saved, “twice” brothers – all the notions of “runaway nigger” should depart forever from any consideration. In fact, the constant misuse of this Scripture to promote slavery, or to claim the Bible condones it, is exactly what keeps it from being properly read.

Now you may ask, “How can it be that one brother is the bondservant of another?” Such a question only arises in the mind of those who do not understand the varied fortunes of families. It’s ordinary, not unusual for one brother’s fortune to be reversed of another.

17 If thou count me therefore a partner, receive him as myself.
18 If he hath wronged thee, or oweth thee ought, put that on mine account;
19 I Paul have written it with mine own hand, I will repay it: albeit I do not say to thee how thou owest unto me even thine own self besides.

The apostle here also points out the great debt that Philemon owes him, because Paul brought the good news of salvation also to Philemon. In essence, Paul is buying Philemon’s freedom with credit that should be to his account.

Now, until there is a proper distinction between indentured servanthood, and slavery, confusion will rule in this entire discussion. Insofar as the context of your statements has to do with Africa, and not Europe, I will further surmise that you are solely concerned about the African slave trade, conducted by the Portuguese and the Arabs in concert with the Africans at the port of Mombassa through Zanzibar, for instance, and connecting in the East Indies with the Spanish and Americans, the British merely providing occasional shipping.

European immigrants very often came to America as indentured servants – bond servants – and then would customarily perform six years of indenture to pay off that bond. This is similar to what went on in Israel, except in Israel there was the prospect of the jubilee year, when all bondservants except those who decided to remain as such, were set free.

In the African case, we are not talking about indenture but man stealing. Both the Old and New Testaments condemn, without equivocation, the practice of man stealing. Indeed, it’s a capital offense in the old testament, not only to steal a man, but to be in possession:

EX 21:16 And he that stealeth a man, and selleth him, or if he be found in his hand, he shall surely be put to death.

Likewise, the New Testament is equally clear, except because civil government is not in view when writing about church practice – that is in the hands of Gentiles, except under the premise of the big mustard tree (not treated here) – there is no penalty given. Nonetheless, it is condemned as strongly as any sin in the epistles:

1Tim 1:9Knowing this, that the law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and for sinners, for unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers,
10 For whoremongers, for them that defile themselves with mankind, for menstealers, for liars, for perjured persons, and if there be any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine;

In summary, the Bible condemns categorically, and without equivocation, the kind of “slavery” that was at issue in Civil War America. The sad part is that the leading opponents of slavery – the American Baptists, for instance, led by Henry E. Fosdick – were wrong about just about everything in the Bible including the denial of the 2nd Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Comment by Carl Wacome » 28th October, 2008 @ 07:27:15 PM

You can twist the word anyway you like but slavery (bond servants) or whatever other name you choose to give to it in any form is immoral if not just plain evil, the bible is morally flawed and there is no way to talk your way around that fact. There are a lot more references which condone slavery which you have side stepped or ignored.
from Gen to Rev it is all through the bible. Which truly is sad.

Comment by Dan Backens » 7th November, 2008 @ 06:13:05 PM

Carl, you think John was twisting words? Wasn’t he actually clarifying what the actual words are? He was trying to help guys like you. Bonds servants are quite different from kidnapped people who are force to serve others. Explain how having bond servants is immoral. If I need money, and offer to work for someone in exchange for money, that is not immoral. Have you ever worked for money?

You also say the Bible is morally flawed. That is quite a statement, for which you will be judged one day. What is your basis? List a reference that condones slavery. If it’s all through the Bible as you say, you should be able to find one without too much effort. I’m surprised you neglected such an obvious point in the first place. Perhaps you assumed no one would doubt such a well stated comment. But I do, so be specific.

Comment by Craig Hawkins » 18th November, 2008 @ 09:40:20 AM

Thanks for your response, Carl. I wish you would have cited some examples of slavery condoned.

Comment by Tammy » 24th June, 2009 @ 03:43:10 PM

I have been doing some research on womens role in the bible and came across a site that had verses that condoned slavery. I will list what they had:

Lev 25:44+45
Ex 21:2-11, 20+21
Eph 6 : 5
1 Tim 6:12
Luke 12:47+48

Now there were other points on the website that took things out of context so I am sure these are as well, but wanted to share them anyway. I am going to read them in context and in the proper version.

Comment by Tammy » 24th June, 2009 @ 03:47:35 PM

Dan,
Thank you for your further explaination of bond servant. I did however wonder why someone that is freed (jubilee year) would purposely chose to stay on as a bond servant. Would this mean to stay on and get paid directly now in stead of paying off a debt?

Comment by Dan Backens » 6th July, 2009 @ 02:20:44 PM

Tammy,
That’s a good question. I would suspect the master had treated the servent well and the servant loved his master. That’s a bit different from normal business agreements for most people today. We don’t become part of someone’s household to work for them, at least not in America. Instead, they pay us a wage and we have our own household. In the case of the freed servant that would like to stay with his master, it is the servant that believes it is to his benefit to stay. It will cost the master to provide for the servant, and the servant will work for the master in exchange. The important difference is that it is a willing arrangement, and therefore unlike the slavery that occurred in America’s past. That was man-stealing, which is a capitol offense in the Bible.

The jubilee year erased all debts, including indentured servants, and returned all property to the original family. This was inside of Israel in scope. God wanted His people to consider each other as brothers. This restriction was there to keep it that way over time. It doesn’t mean that’s what really happened in Israel, since they certainly didn’t keep the law.

Comment by John Thomas » 11th July, 2009 @ 03:10:38 AM

Servants: a. Foreign Bond-servants. The greater number of the servants among Israel were foreigners, who became slaves in one of three ways: (1) as captives of war, Num. 31:26; Deut. 20:14; (2) by purchased of slave-traders, Lev. 25:44; or (3) by birth of parents that were already in slavery, Gen. 17:13. These slaves were, it would seem, seldom set free but enjoyed the protection of the law. If a master smote his servant, so that he died immediately, or maltreated him in such a manner that permanent injury resulted, he was punished for it, Ex. 21:20, 21, 26, 27. Even runaway slaves, coming from other countries to Israel, were not to be returned to their masters, Deut. 23:15,16. Moreover these bond-servants were regarded as an integral part of the family, shared in the Sabbath rest, and took part in the feasts of Israel. The custom of the land even allowed the slaves greater privileges than the law required. Eliezer served as sort of plenipotentiary for Abraham, Gen. 24:1 ff.; Saul asks for the counsel of his boy, 1 Sam. 25:14 ff. It was even possible that a slave should marry the daughter of his master, 1 Chron. 2:34.35; and that he should be his master’s heir, Gen. 15:2 ff. The deepest ground for this humane treatment is found in the fact that the slaves formed a part in the religious community, were circumcised and therefore brethren of the faith.
b. Hebrew Servants. The slavery of Hebrew men and women always resulted from debt. A person who was unable to meet his obligations in any other way, could enter service with or without his family. And a thief that found it impossible to make restitution of what he had stolen, was forced into servitude, Ex. 21:2 ff.; 22:2 ff.; Neh, 5:5. Naturally the position of Hebrew servants was still more favorable than that of foreign slaves. Under no circumstances might they be made bond-servants; they had to be regarded as hired servants, Lev. 24:39 f. Neither could they be sold outside the Holy Land, although it was possible that they should become servants to foreigners living in Palestine. They were even better protected by the law than bond-servants. Their great prerogative was that their servitude terminated, when their debt was paid by themselves or by others, or in the sabbatic year. If the slave was married on entering the service of his master, he could in the year of rest take his family with him; not so, however, in case he entered wedlock during the period of his servitude. If he chose to forego the opportunity of the sabbatic year, either for the love of his family or his attachment to his master, or because, if he went free, he would miss the necessaries of life, – he was taken to the judges and next to the doorpost, where his ear was pierced with an awl in token of permanent service, Ex. 21:2-6. But in case he preferred to go free, his master might not let him go empty-handed, Deut. 15:12-17. An Israelite that was a servant to a foreigner, living in Palestine, could only hope to obtain freedom by being redeemed or in the year of jubilee. This year meant freedom for all Israelite slaves, which seems to be implied in the restoration of each one’s property, though authorities differ on the question, whether those who remained in the sabbatic year also went free in the year of jubilee.

Comment by Taco Salad » 23rd January, 2010 @ 03:44:18 PM

Exodus 21:20-21

Yes, I am sure that a verse clearly stating that you can beat your slave as long as he regains consciousness within 2-3 days is taken out of context. Are you out of your mind? The bible is clearly condoning violence and bigotry.

Comment by Troy » 21st April, 2010 @ 10:15:12 PM

Actually Taco, you are DEAD WRONG my friend. The bible does NOT say you can beat your slave as long as he regains consciousness within 2-3 days. That is ridiculous, and shows your lack of knowledge of the bible. What it ACTUALLY says if you had taken the time is that god says it is ok to beat your slave as long as they do not die within 2-3 days. So if they die after 4 days of agony and suffering then god is perfectly ok with it since god views the slave as property (I was being sarcastic Taco..I am with you brother. To say the bible is flawed morally is framing the issue politely).

And for you that believe I am quoting out of context..here’s the context…

When you buy a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years, but in the seventh he shall go out a free person, without debt. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s and he shall go out alone. But if the slave declares, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out a free person’, then his master shall bring him before God. He shall be brought to the door or the doorpost; and his master shall pierce his ear with an awl; and he shall serve him for life.

When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. If she does not please her master, who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed; he shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has dealt unfairly with her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish the food, clothing, or marital rights of the first wife. And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out without debt, without payment of money.

Whoever strikes a person mortally shall be put to death. If it was not premeditated, but came about by an act of God, then I will appoint for you a place to which the killer may flee. But if someone wilfully attacks and kills another by treachery, you shall take the killer from my altar for execution.

Whoever strikes father or mother shall be put to death.

Whoever kidnaps a person, whether that person has been sold or is still held in possession, shall be put to death. Whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death.

When individuals quarrel and one strikes the other with a stone or fist so that the injured party, though not dead, is confined to bed, but recovers and walks around outside with the help of a staff, then the assailant shall be free of liability, except to pay for the loss of time, and to arrange for full recovery.

When a slave-owner strikes a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner shall be punished. But if the slave survives for a day or two, there is no punishment; for the slave is the owner’s property. [Exodus, chapter 21]

Comment by Dan Backens » 22nd May, 2010 @ 09:06:21 PM

Taco Salad, if that is indeed your name, you have not understood the type of slavery we are discussing in Exodus. It is not man-stealing. That is covered in v16, and is punishable by death, regardless of how you treat the person you have stolen. That is what happened here in America and should have been dealt with as such. There were those, and still are, who will twist the scriptures as they see fit for their own lusts.

But here we are discussing how to deal with a slave owner who goes too far with discipline. It does not allow for cruelty and violence, but rather established a punishment for such behavior, knowing the nature of men. And Troy, if the slave does not recover, the owner is absolutely punished, even if you cannot understand it. Do not try to apply these verses to today in American. There is no appropriate context.

If you were to keep reading, I know that is harder than just taking things out of context, you would find out that if a slave owner was responsible for the loss of a slave’s eye, or even a tooth, the slave was released from the remainder his debt. No slave owner wants to lose his investment like that. Remember this is about an economic arrangement, not man-stealing.

Comment by jrod » 24th June, 2010 @ 02:24:49 PM

It’s horrifyingly brilliant how the same people who couldn’t explain the reason for their own morality if you put a gun to their head, can with utter simplicity critique the supposed immorality of ancient near eastern practices. Let’s take a few chapters out of thousands and stand confidently and say: this is what Christianity is!
If you did that with anything else, any other religion, pasttime or hobby, you’d look like an idiot.

Soccer is just about running around.
Islam is just about killing Jews.
Literature is just about Shakespeare.
Judaism is just about killing sheep.
Golf is all about Tiger Woods’ sex life.

It’s amazing how the “bible condones slavery” crowd doesn’t bother to quote Philemon, or the other verses that show the equality of ALL people under God, including those under slavery. Yes, slavery exists, and Jesus didn’t come and make everything bad disappear according to your timetable, your delicate sensibilities and your incredible sense of finely tuned morality.
And why exactly does no one see that Moses KILLED a slaveowner, and God decided that that was the person to be the leader of Israel?

Comment by A Woman Who Thinks For Herself » 13th October, 2010 @ 05:53:41 PM

The real tragedy here is that you are arguing about whether the bible does or does not condone slavery while overlooking the fact that women are oppressed throughout the world, today and in biblical times. You know why? Your pathetic excuse for what you call Christianity. Jesus forgave whores and treated women with respect. It’s too bad that today’s modern Christians can’t be more Christlike. Keeping your wife barefoot and pregnant isn’t respect, it’s abuse. Not educating your daughters as thoroughly as your sons is discrimination. Where do men get off thinking their the boss of everything? Most of society’s ills, both domestic and foreign, are problems with men. If you sit back and let the women run the show for awhile, I bet you’d see some real results.

Don’t bother pulling quotes out of your bible to show me how wrong I am. I have no plans of responding. I just wanted to be clear that some of us are on to you! We won’t let you get away with subjugating women forever.

Comment by Mr Wordly Wiseman » 8th April, 2011 @ 10:08:13 PM

The Bible is actually quite clear on the subject of slavery. In Leviticus 25:44-46 the Bible says:”However, you may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way.”

Basically, you can treat the slave however you want as long as it is a foreigner that you are purchasing. All the guidelines on how you treat your slaves are only applicable if the person is of Hebrew descent. Most of the commenter’s post have been valid factual on what the Bible has to say about Hebrew slaves but ignore the fact that anyone not of Hebrew descent could be degraded into “property” and dealt with accordingly.

To further establish my point I invite you to read this quotation from scripture, “When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property.” Exodus 21:20-21. I don’t think the Bible can be any clearer on how an owner can treat their foreign slaves than that.

*Summary*
-Read the two quotations from scripture which are pretty direct and self explanatory even without my commentaries.
-The Bible does permit slavery and the abuse of certain slaves based on nationality/ethnicity.

PS: If you feel like disputing my arguments I invite you to open the Bible and actually READ IT FOR YOURSELF. I don’t believe that their are any flaws in my logic but I would be happy to listen to your criticisms.
PSS: Forgive my atrocious grammar and spelling. I apologize for my lack of will to go back and re-proofread this.

Comment by Sebastian Andrew » 1st September, 2011 @ 08:55:45 PM

Nice distinction made betw. slavery as opposed to indentured servitude. Well done!

Comment by jim » 30th October, 2011 @ 02:33:07 AM

Proverbs 22:7 The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender… The wisdom of the ages that we too soon forget.

Comment by tds » 24th November, 2011 @ 12:16:53 PM

One big problem with all of this discussion. It is missing the larger theological point, focusing on trees not the forest. The point in Christianity is that all of the human race is in slavery to sin, ALL of us! It is in Christ that we become brothers and sisters, and in Christ that we are set free from the law and from our condition.

You get it? The slavery alegories are based on physical reality and history which the Bible and human history lays out. This is not about justifying or condeming slavery — its about recognizing just how real and awful overt slavery is (just look at black slavery and the practices of slave holders) and then comparing it to a spiritual condition. Incidentally, the bible makes a similar case about exploitation by the rich and powerful over the poor.

Not to trivilize American slavery, but these arguments ignore the repeated theme in both old and new testiments –Israelites become free as does the human race. We are all in bondage and need liberation.

This is really the point — freedom from unbearable conditions and the recognition that slavery DOES mean you are owned by another entity — sinful society or the devil, however you want to phrase it.

Comment by lora » 20th February, 2012 @ 09:38:17 PM

The Bible does not condone slavery. Many of the references some give to “prove” that it does are specifically written to the nation of Isreal in relation to circumstances many centuries ago.
But to say the Bible is morally flawed is to be in error. The Bible is the standard of morality. All of our morals are to be judged by the Bible, not the other way around. The Bible is God’s word, and if it is not politically correct, it behooves us to change our way of thinking and living to conform to the Bible.

Comment by Confusef » 15th July, 2012 @ 12:11:25 AM

Honestly, after reading this I still don’t understand. Everything is contradictory. I read the bible occassionally and it most certainly condones slavery and litetally a couple verses later say its wrong. Sure menservants and indentured servants are mentioned but they were to be treated better than slaves. The bible legalizes slavery in several books. The one that comes to mind now is in Leviticus 25:35-43. If you read it you will see that it makes a distinction on how a manservant would be treated as supposed to a slave who was treated as lesser. Then as is some of the scriptures listed above, the bible turns around contradicts itself. Ive read this over and over and I’m still mixed up.

Comment by Confusef » 15th July, 2012 @ 12:13:22 AM

*Opposed

Comment by Jaco » 13th October, 2012 @ 04:55:44 AM

This is probably an elementary school level answer, but it has served me well in my faith.

In biblical days, the civilization of the time hinged on slaves and servants. The pyramids would not have been built nor the cities been developed. This does not justify their use. It is merely a statement of what most people already know.

So, what are some things that we use in this day and age to further our civilization?What if God were to come to earth today and proclaim,”I command you to stop using cars and trucks and other fossil fuel burning machinery, as they are destroying the earth that I have created.” HE WOULD’NT! Because being omniscient, He would know that us mankind would not give up those thing that we have become dependent on to develop our current civilization because we are sinners. Rather, He might lay down some guidelines. “Use bio-diesel fuels” or “Convert to solar technology”.

Back in that day and age, they did not have farm machinery or cranes…they had very little to depend on for development except the sweat off a mans brow. And because the average citizen(just as in this day and age) had very self serving interests, very few men volunteered there services for hire. Therefore, MEN not GOD decided that slavery and servitude would be a remedy to the labor intensive demands of the era. So, if God would have said,”Abolish slavery and for it is a sin and slave owners will be punished”,do we honestly believe that all the world would take heed? NO, AND HE KNEW THAT. Also knowing the treatment that masters would ultimately unleash on the slaves, He laid down some guidelines.

Although I would be hard pressed to explain his guidelines concerning foreign slaves, one might contend that He wanted them to stay in the presence of the children of Israel so that they could come to know Him through practices of the faith.

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