How do you justify the rules regarding owning non-Hebrew slaves as per the Old Testament scriptures? How do you say that a God who lets you own another human being is righteous?
A careful reading of the Old Testament shows a gentle and caring spirit in the laws and customs on slavery. This is illustrated by the repeated commands in God’s name not to rule over a fellow Israelite harshly (see Leviticus 25:43, 46, 53, 55; Deuteronomy 15:14). Even when the laws and customs on slavery given to Israel share in the common heritage of the ancient Semitic world, a unique care was provided in God’s name for these people who, by status, were not considered people. We need to take note that this kind of a humanitarian attitude was absent from the law codes of Babylon or Assyria.
When we talk especially about a sensitive topic like slavery, we need to first understand the historical context of the ancient Near East. Slavery, whose existence and spread was due to economic factors, can be seen from the earliest times throughout the ancient Near East. One could become a slave by capture (Genesis 14:21), by purchase (Genesis 17:12-13), by birth (Genesis 15:3), as restitution (Exodus 22:3), by defaulting on debts (2 Kings 4:1) or by self-sale (Leviticus 25:39-43).
When we talk especially about a sensitive topic like slavery, we need to first understand the historical context of the ancient Near East
However, slavery in the Old Testament times wasn’t like the despicable institution of slavery that disgraced the human civilisation in later times. When we think of slavery, we often imagine a race-based system where the slave was stolen from their home, lacked any legal rights and was the property of the master. The OT form of slavery is not the same. In the OT scheme of things, man-stealing was a capital offence (Exodus 21:16). And although foreign slaves were handed on with other family property (Leviticus 25:44-46), they were included in the commonwealth of Israel and shared in the festivals (Exodus 12:44) and sabbath rest (Exodus 20:10). A woman captured in war could be taken as a wife by a Hebrew and thereby would no longer be a slave. Even if she was divorced later, she was a free woman and not a slave (Deuteronomy 21:10-14). Slaves had various legal rights before the law and could even own a business or other slaves while they were still under their master’s control. Above all, the law envisioned an eventual release from this life of servitude in the year of Jubilee when freedom was given and liberty was proclaimed throughout the land (Leviticus 25:10).
To be sure, slavery does seem to distort God’s created intention for human beings, and there are some tough passages that can’t be brushed aside. But there is a massive difference between the reprehensible institution of slavery of the modern day and, say, Abraham’s relationship with his servant (Genesis 24:2).
This certainly does not answer the question or take away the enormity of it, but it does frame it more accurately.
We need to look at the entire Bible to interpret it fairly rather than just look at parts of it. This is because of how God revealed Himself in history — progressively. Progressive revelation means that God didn’t reveal His character and will to human beings all at once, but piece by piece over a long period of time. An honest interpretation of the Bible recognises that God accommodates His revelation to particular historical contexts and even to sinful social systems within them.
The alternative would be that God remain silent and not reveal His character and will to a particular people at a particular time until all societal evils have been eliminated. So, picking a verse from here or there may not tell you everything you need to know about God’s character and will. As a matter of fact, it will give you a picture of the day-to-day life in a certain context than the Bible’s overall stand on institutional or structural evil.
By way of analogy, I could tell you that I did not vote in the last election. Does that give you my overall viewpoint on democracy? Not necessarily. You would need more material to determine that. Similarly, social practices like slavery, divorce and polygamy were common in the ancient world. Because the Bible gives instructions that allows for them in certain historical contexts does not necessarily mean that the Bible condones those practices. We must interpret them in relation to everything else the Bible says.
Because the Bible gives instructions that allows for certain social practices in certain historical contexts does not necessarily mean that the Bible condones them
To be specific, we need to consider two monumental events in biblical revelation — creation and the gospel. Creation tells us that all human beings have been made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28), and the gospel gives us the assurance that God has removed all racial and social divisions at the cross (Galatians 3:28, Philemon 16) and to look forward to a day when people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9) dwell together in perfect harmony.
In fact, these very principles of Scripture led people like William Wilberforce to lead the abolition of slavery in Britain, and were also the foundation for activism in the Americas. The more recent anti-slavery movement was also deeply influenced by Christian principles, just as the demise of slavery in the Roman era was due to the rise of Christianity.
I suspect what I’ve written here may not fully satisfy everyone. There’s a whole lot more that needs to be said on a topic like this. However, what I’ve done here is to show that there’s an enormous difference between slavery in the OT times and some of its manifestations in more recent times. I’ve also endeavoured to show how God works throughout history in flawed circumstances, and hopefully helped you to see slavery in the larger context of God’s purposes in creation and redemption. When we look at Jesus and His sacrifice on the cross, we know we have a reason to trust that God is righteous and loves us all.
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