I'd like to continue on the Biblical difficulties topic today. Last time, I talked about polygamy and how some people think that the Bible endorses it. One idea that is more widely thought to be endorsed by the Bible than polygamy, however, is slavery. This can sometimes be a hangup for some people in believing that the God of the Bible is good. They think of how horrible it was when people in United States would abuse their slaves or how families would be torn apart as white men came and kidnapped people in Africa, and then they see that many people in the Bible had slaves and that Jesus commanded slaves to be obedient to their masters. Seeing those things in the Bible, they then assume that the Bible endorses the kind of slavery that was rampant in the 1600s-1800s. Is this really the case though? Would a good God endorse taking a man from his family and cruelly force him into hard labor without compensation and without hope? My thoughts after the jump.
Slavery can be a little bit of a sticky subject. We have many negative ideas of slavery, and really, there isn't anything positive about that I can think of when I consider all that I learned in school about slavery in the U.S. Making the topic more difficult yet, is that the Bible does indeed talk about the roles of masters and slaves, with the apostle Paul writing to both the Ephesians and Collosians that bondservants (slaves) should obey their masters. On the surface, it does certainly appear that the Bible endorses slavery.
The most important thing to realize about slavery in ancient Israel is that it is not the same type of slavery from the 1600s-1800s that you learned about in school. Slavery as we know it was largely racially motivated. Most slaves in the American Colonies and then the U.S. were men, women, and children kidnapped from their homes and families in Africa. The white Europeans deemed themselves superior to the black Africans. Slavery in Israel was not racially motivated. They did not buy and sell slaves because they had an air of superiority about themselves.
Slavery in ancient Israel could best be described as indentured servitude. People were often sold into slavery (and also often sold themselves) in order to pay debts. The slave (or servant) would work for the agreed upon amount of time in order to pay a debt they owed or they might sell themselves because they had fallen into poverty. Now, you may be thinking something like "Ok, it may not have been a racial issue, but these were still people working for nothing, suffering under their owners hands, without hope or rights." This is not true though.
A servant may not have earned much money, but he was paying off money he owed. He was also to be taken care of and provided for by his master. Furthermore, a servant in Israel was to be treated kindly, not with violence or cruelty. If a slave was murdered, their master was to be surely punished (Ex. 21:20). Inflicting more minor injuries upon your slaves was grounds for their freedom (Ex. 21:26-27)
Unlike slaves in 1700s America, servants in Israel had rights. A slave could own property and even have slaves of their own. (2 Sam. 9:9-10). Servants also had religious rights, such as being allowed to observe the Sabbath (Ex. 2:10). People entering slavery with a family were also allowed to keep their family.
Finally, slaves were not under hopeless oppression. Jewish slaves were not allowed to be kept in slavery for more than six years. After six years, they were to bet set free, their debt seen as paid and no longer owing anything (Ex. 21:2). They were given the option however, to stay on as a bondservant, working for their master out of love and respect. This was optional, however, not mandatory. Notice how this condition is similar to something else in the Bible. When God created the earth, he worked for 6 days, just as a Hebrew slave would work for 6 years. God then rested the 7th day, and a Hebrew slave would be set free the 7th year. Notice also that just as the slaves were given a choice to continue to follow their master out of love, we are given the choice to either follow our master/creator or to reject Him.
In the New Testament, Jesus did not free all of the slaves from their human masters. Rather, he came to free us from our slavery to sin. We can turn away from or old master: the master that causes us pain, suffering, guilt, and eventually death, and turn to a new master that loves us, cares for us, and even sacrifices himself for us. Like the slaves of Israel though, we have to make the choice. God is ultimately the master of all. Whether we choose to accept that now or not, one day all will bow to Him. He is a master that is holy, just, fair, kind, and loving though. Paul reminded the Ephesians that they should treat their slaves with kindness and love, because even they have a master who is in heaven (Eph. 6:8-9).
So you see, when you look at it historically and culturally, slavery in ancient Israel was not at all like slavery like we have seen the past couple hundred years. Slavery in ancient Israel was more similar to an occupation than to modern day slavery. The Bible talks about slavery, but in every instance, it was commanded that slaves were to be treated with love and kindness, and given respect and rights. The Bible never endorsed murdering or abusing slaves, stealing them from their families, or torturing them with unending servitude. So one cannot fairly say God is bad because their were slaves in the Bible when the definition of slavery is entirely different.