While watching the news during the week I heard again a statement that I have definitely heard in the past, maybe several times.
The statement was that a certain lifestyle was deemed acceptable as the Bible supports slavery. In other words if the Bible got it so wrong on this subject how could you possibly consult it for guidance on anything else. Re-phrased another way as the Bible supports or previously supported slavery it has no moral authority whatsoever over anyone’s life.
Questions naturally arise from this; does the Bible indeed support slavery and is someone justified in ignoring the bible because it seems to support an activity which all right thinking people reject?
You may think of slavery as a problem of antiquity however slavery continues to exist in the modern day. Estimates of the number of slaves today range from around 21 million – 29 million to 46 million.
The first thing to state is the difference between modern slavery as we know it and slavery as described in the bible. Biblical slavery was very different to what we have in our minds when we think of modern slavery.
In biblical times slavery was not based on race/nationality or colour but was based mainly on your economic situation or social status. The key difference was that people would often sell themselves as slaves including; lawyers, doctors and politicians.
The commonly used word for a slave was dou’lo’ a term which essentially means one who sells himself into slavery. The key difference demonstrated here is that slavery allowed in the bible in no way resembled racial slavery which has plagued our world in the past few centuries. Modern slavery which is often associated with kidnapping is specifically addressed and condemned in scripture. Exodus 21:16, 1 Timothy 1:8-10.
So another question which naturally arises is; why would God allow slavery to remain?
The response is too say that God has given man freedom and from this has come many sinful actions one of which was slavery.
Slavery existed before God took the Jews to become a nation devoted to him and before we read of this calling in the bible. So how would God respond towards this practice and what would he communicate to his chosen people about it?
What we find is that slavery like divorce is not preferred by God but instead is allowed to remain but with strict regulations given to his people. While many nations treated their slaves badly, the bible laid out rights and privileges for those in this predicament.
So what were God’s instructions on treating slaves and what does this reveal about his feelings on this practice?
God instructed the Israelites to treat the slaves properly. His word indicates that a master’s power was to be restricted over their slave (Exodus 21:20). The slave was to be a member with all the associated rights of their master’s household (Leviticus 22:11), they were required to rest on the sabbath (Exodus 20:10). God’s word strictly prohibited the extradition of slaves and they were to be granted asylum (Deuteronomy 23:16-17). The servitude of a Hebrew debt-slave was limited to six years (Deuteronomy 15:12) and when the slave was freed there were to receive gifts that enabled them to survive economically (Deuteronomy 15:14). Paul also strongly warned many years later in the New Testament that slaves were to be treated with respect (Ephesians 6:5-9).
These scriptures demonstrate clearly how God felt about a practice that was instituted by people who chose to do things their own way and paid no attention to his plan for their life.
He allowed slavery to remain with strict regulations for his people as to how they should treat their fellow-man.
God permitted slavery to exist in both old and New Testament times but this does not mean that slavery was a God-ordained system. Slavery was an invention of a fallen man not of God. Nevertheless God allowed it to exist the way he allows other things to exist that he does not approve of: murder, lying, rape, theft etc.
In 1 Corinthians 7:23 paul makes one significant pronouncement.
“You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings”
Here we clearly see Paul’s attitude towards slavery and the seeds of social freedom embedded in his words. The gospel and slavery are incompatible because someone else has already purchased us (Christians).
In summary remember 3 things when discussing slavery in the bible.
1) God tolerated slavery as he did other human sins. Just because an action is in the Bible does not mean it is condoned.
2) Slavery which was tolerated in the Bible was not the same as modern slavery.
3) God clearly lays out how to treat anyone classed as a slave. They were to be treated fairly, with respect and where to be given gifts and eventually their freedom.
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Series to follow on Positive Evidence for God.