Another "What do we do with slavery in the OT?" thread

(Stephen Matheson) #1

You’ve read Deuteronomy 20?

How does Eve being made from a rib work with evolution?
Christian ethics and human evolution
(David Greathouse) #2

Yes, your point?

(Mervin Bitikofer) #3

Tread carefully, Stephen and David … the whole “Bible promotes slavery thing” went on for literally hundreds of exchanges over weeks of time as I recall in a past forum post. Beaglelady could help you find it if you’re interested … she was one of the frequent participants on it at the time. Condensing the whole thing down, it can be predictably summarized thus:

atheists: “The Bible promotes slavery – have you read [insert several proof texts here --can be found in both old and new testaments, but especially in old].”

the faithful: “No it doesn’t. You’re just taking specific instructions for certain peoples and times and mistaking that for some overall message in which the Bible is affirming that slavery is acceptable. Besides slavery in the Bible was different than the much worse chattel slavery of the early Americas.”

the now indignant atheist: “Of course it approves slavery! [insert all the same proof texts]. And it’s creepy that you seem to want to justify it. [insert yet another proof text where a master is instructed about how much he can beat his slave or what penalties become necessary should the slave die.]”

And so it goes. The faithful (if they have planted their flag on inerrancy narrowly-interpreted) in the end must admit [and rightly so] that slavery is a terrible and immoral thing whenever and wherever it happened, living with cognitive dissonance over how to treat contrary biblical texts. And the atheist will cling to his ideologically-driven notion that the Bible certainly approves and endorses all the most terrible forms of slavery because … well … Judeo-Christianity through all this history is responsible for such a large portion of evil that of course this would be so! The fundamentalist-inspired reading of the text seems to demand it [theists turn into atheists easily enough --but they tragically almost never lose their fundamentalism along the way]. No other approach to Scriptures could even exist, right?

I have a pretty good idea where all of you will park yourselves. Go ahead. Surprise me.

Roll script …


I acknowledge that the Old Testament accepts slavery and has laws concerning it. Somebody tried to convince me that that the slaves were not really property and could simply walk away if they didn’t happen to find it to their liking. I was never convinced.

(Stephen Matheson) #5

Only the completely deluded can deny that the OT not only accepted slavery but commanded it along with other crimes against humanity that ISIS would struggle to match. The challenge is to acknowledge this and deal with it, and there are plenty of ways to do that. The claim that “an in depth study in Hebrew slavery will reveal that it was not chattel slavery” is completely detached from reality. Decide for yourselves what to do about this phenomenon.


That is true.

(David Greathouse) #7

Its actually not detached from reality, but acknowledgement of the cultural arena and ancient mindset.

Of course, believing that a several thousand year old practice of voluntary servitude is somehow related to American chattel slavery is illogical at best.

(George Brooks) #8


You aren’t going to make me quote scripture on slavery, are you? This red herring about chattel slavery is all very reassuring, but both kinds of servitude is discussed, and differentiated, in the Old Testament - - with not much changing in the New Testament.

The Bible is filled with culturally-bound views and positions. This should not surprise any of us. In another thread I provided lots of thoughts found in just one chapter of Job - - which seem all very foreign and alien to the modern reader. I think that should be sufficient for us to agree and move to the next thought.

(David Greathouse) #9

I would love for you to quote to me scripture on slavery, I’ve heard it all before. Chattel slavery did not occur under the Israelites. Slave traders were considered sinners, and “man-stealers” were punished with death. The Hebrew word for “slave” was ebed, and it also meant “servant”. Christ called the Apostles “servants”.

You see, biblically speaking, you are a slave to what you obey. (Romans 6:16). We can be slaves to sin, too.

Biblical slavery was not chattel slavery. If you can prove otherwise, I’m all ears.

(Thanh Chung) #10

… Its so complicated. Even after reading Mark Noll’s The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, I still can’t make up my mind. How exactly was slavery practiced in the ancient Israelite times?

I feel like I would support David’s view that Biblical slavery was not chattel slavery because anything like 19th century racism did not exist in the ancient times as far as I know.

(Stephen Matheson) #11

Deut. 20:14
"As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies."


I’ve heard that argument many times and never understood it.

Thanh_C, why is racism relevant to whether or not chattel slavery existed? The word “chattel” essentially means “personal property.” So I don’t see how racism makes any difference.

If one could go back in time to Ancient Rome and compared Roman masters and their slaves, one usually wouldn’t notice any sort sort of racial/ethnic differences. Yes, some slaves had darker skin (even much darker) but so many slaves came from various regions of Europe and looked just like the masters such that one could have them swap places and nobody would know the difference.

Accordingly, could someone explain to me why race makes any difference whatsoever in terms of chattel slavery?

(Mervin Bitikofer) #13

Because an ancient slave had the possibility of being freed at some point since slavery was based more on their economic status (at least for some of them --if you came from the wrong nation-state, that would be harder to change although even there, not impossible. We read of Hitites or Moabites that must have switched allegiances and attained good standing in Israel.) But the point is, would you rather be a slave whose freedom could be bought or given? Or a slave whose status is based on your skin color which you have zero chance of ever changing? They are both evil. Humans being slaves to other humans has always been evil whether Bible times, early Americas, and now. And one way to more permanently entrench and impose that evil on someone is to define them as slave based on something (like skin color) that is forever intrinsically part of who they are. Early Americas may have set the high-water mark for just how pernicious this could become, though history isn’t over yet and it remains to be seen how much more evil we “enlightened” societies can manage to make with all the continuing permutations of slavery today.

So far everybody is right on script … on we go!


I don’t understand how your post explains the issue to which I responded:

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Biblical slavery was not chattel slavery because anything like 19th century racism did not exist in the ancient times

How did the lack of a racial element to Hebrew slavery somehow prevent it from being chattel slavery? Clearly Hebrew slavery in terms of ownership of non-Hebrews (and not just the seven year “indentured servitude” of one’s Hebrew brethren) was chattel slavery.

I just don’t understand how your explanation of various factors of which we are all aware somehow removes the label of chattel slavery.

If one can own a slave, that is chattel slavery. That is the dictionary definition, is it not?

Am I wrong in thinking that it sounds like some are trying to dance around an obvious reality? Like it or not, chattel slavery existed in ancient Israel.

Race is an irrelevant issue. If I can own even my identical twin (a far greater similarity than just matching skin color), that would still be chattel slavery.

Was slavery in ancient Israel different than antebellum U.S. slavery? Yes. It was also different from the Greek empire’s slavery and Roman slavery. But so what? All of those forms of slavery included chattel slavery. There is no getting around it.

I don’t understand how that is the point. I’d rather not be a slave of any kind. The definition of chattel slavery doesn’t care about details of how and when freedom can be granted. The very fact that it can be granted only reinforces the idea of ownership!

(Mervin Bitikofer) #15

I haven’t researched what various dictionary definitions will turn up … if it is all about ownership, then sure … the slavery referred to in the Bible qualifies. I’m not sure who you think is dancing … I was just speaking of what I perceived to be the common context for that word in which there is no possibility for a slave gaining freedom. Wikipedia has it thus:

A slave is unable to withdraw unilaterally from such an arrangement and works without remuneration. Many scholars now use the term chattel slavery to refer to this specific sense of legalised, de jure slavery.

If that isn’t technically accurate, then I stand corrected.

You, Stephen, and Beaglelady seem concerned that somebody here is trying to justify, defend, or otherwise minimize the evils of slavery --even the slavery described, [and at one time even ostensibly commanded in the Bible]. So before we go on we should probably make sure you actually have an audience. Does anybody here think that slavery of that time represents a general Biblical teaching that slavery is good or in any way justified? Anybody at all? If so, we have several people here who would desperately love to have a discussion with you.

I suspect most, if not all Christians who hang around here are concerned to condemn slavery in all its forms, and are also concerned to correct people if or when they misrepresent what the Bible affirms and teaches us. The latter part of that seems to be what needs more attention and dispute. I hope we’re all on board and have common cause with each other today to end all slavery that is still happening. If we ask who here objects to that then I sincerely hope the response will be … [sound of crickets].


Don’t you mean involuntary servitude?


Even before the Civil War the freedom of Black slaves could be bought, either by themselves or others. Runaway slaves were free once they reached a non-slave state or Canada. Some Blacks in the U.S. were born free.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #18

It’s good to know that black people at least had a few less-than-bleak prospects amid such a prevailingly oppressive population!

(Patrick ) #19

Slavery is just one of the immoralities that was written by ancient near eastern people that today we would label immoral. The equal treatment of woman is the other major area where morality has changed greatly. In the bible, woman are literally property. I am certain that 100 years from now, homosexuality and other gender issues will be looked at very differently and the biblical morality (stoning) would seem more and more barbaric and morally wrong. For me, 21st century morality should be as far away as possible from the morality of an ancient near eastern culture of the OT and the morality of Roman occupied Judea 2000 years ago.

(David Greathouse) #20

No, I mean voluntary.

“Man-stealing” wasn’t allowed, so no was forced into servitude by a random stranger who abducted him. Children were the “property” of their parents, so I suppose if there was some evil Israelite parent, they could sell their child into servitude against the child’s will… Of course, that immoral transaction would be no different then a parent giving their child up for adoption against his/her will, therefore turning him/her into property of the state, contained until they reach 18 y/o. And, let it be known, the children aren’t exactly treated good in those facilities.