Hello everyone and welcome back to Deeper Waters where we are diving into the ocean of truth! Tonight, we’re going to look at another atheist sound bite, although I hope soon to move on to the ones we Christians use that irk me oh so much. Last night, we looked at the topic of supposed genocide briefly and saw the main example of Numbers 31 and that it’s highly exaggerated. What about slavery? How is it that the Bible condones such a practice?
To begin with, one point I usually make with atheists is that they also need a moral standard by which they condemn this practice. Very few people I find who profess to be moral relativists seem to live this out. They tend to be relativists about the morality they want people to tolerate in them and absolutists about morality they won’t accept elsewhere.
Also, let’s clear something up at the start. If you’re an American thinking about slavery in the Civil War era, drop that idea immediately. That’s not what’s going on in the Bible. Keep in mind in fact that some slavemasters in the South were quite good to their slaves and the slaves didn’t want to leave. There were some blacks in the Confederate army. The north was hardly innocent either with child labor and poor working conditions.
In our times, slavery was done on people seen as racially inferior and was often done to exploit them. In the Bible, it was quite the opposite. If you go to work sometime and you come home referring to your boss as a taskmaster, you’re not too far from the slavery in the Bible in some ways. It was more akin to the employee/employer relationship.
Everyone needed to work to live and the only place you can go to to get a job is to those who have the money to pay you. If you were a poor person in ancient Israel, you had to hire yourself out to someone to work. Seeing as your livelihood and his depended on work getting done, a contract of sorts would be required, even if just an oral one. This was the system.
It was a staple of the ancient world and no one could function without it. People had to work for other people. Around the time of the Romans, some slaves had enough to become teachers and other professionals. The philosopher Epictetus was a slave. This was also allowed in Israel as a slave could have his own income and resources.
“Yeah? Well you could also beat a slave without fear of punishment provided he live!”
Sounds like it’s treating a slave as mere property at first, but not at all. When a slave is referred to as property, it means the owner has rights to the output that the slave would produce. Your employer, if you are the common American worker, just as much expects certain output from you. That’s why he pays you.
Well what about this in Exodus 21?
20 “Anyone who beats their male or female slave with a rod must be punished if the slave dies as a direct result, 21 but they are not to be punished if the slave recovers after a day or two, since the slave is their property.
To begin with, you would be punished if the slave died. However, if the worker lives after a day or two, you weren’t. Why? The owner is being given the benefit of the doubt. He doesn’t want to lose that income from that slave and besides, if other future workers hear that X died under the treatment of Y, he knows he’s not likely to get replacement help.
The rod was also the system of discipline. We can scorn that today, as we prefer locking someone away in a cell for several years. It’s quite the difference as to us, solitude is seen as a great punishment. I believe the ancients placed great value on solitude.
But even if you beat your slave, notice what Exodus 21 later says:
26 “An owner who hits a male or female slave in the eye and destroys it must let the slave go free to compensate for the eye. 27 And an owner who knocks out the tooth of a male or female slave must let the slave go free to compensate for the tooth.
The idea is that if a slave suffers permanent damage under the care of the person he was a slave to, then that slave was to go free. That’s something any owner would keep in mind when it came to discipline! The owner’s reputation again would also suffer as a result.
Well that works for Hebrews. What about foreigners! The system was biased towards those who identified with YHWH!
Yeah. It was.
What? You’re expected to think that YHWH running a system would not want people in that system to be devoted to Him?
The simple solution for any alien would be to convert to following YHWH. Abandon pagan gods and join YHWH. Why should this be a surprise to us? There is nothing immoral about it. If you are in charge of an organization, you get to call the shots on who gets what kind of treatment.
Is this ideal? No. It is not. However, it would not have worked for YHWH to have overthrown the system entirely. The ancient world depended on it, the rich and the poor alike. His plan was to take a less than ideal system and eventually through the transference of holiness make it better.
“Well Jesus could have done something about it! Why nothing in the NT!?”
The NT does tell slaves to work hard, but it also tells masters to treat their slaves well. Why nothing explicit? The gospel was not to be about overthrowing a political system, but rather the kingdom of the devil. It was through such transformation that slavery would eventually be overcome. This was through the work of people like Bathilda, wife of Clovis II, and William Wilberforce.
I recommend works like Kaiser’s “Towards Old Testament Ethics,” “The Rise of Christianity” and “The Victory of Reason” by Rodney Stark, articles at Tektonics.org, and the work at the Christian-thinktank.com, including a whole in-depth article on this topic.
The question to the atheist critic is, “What exactly have you read about slavery in the ANE?”